Text and photographs by Zoe Loftus-Farren.
It’s Friday afternoon at Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ernie Koepf has just docked his boat after a week on the water.
Right now it’s herring season, which peaks during January and February when the herring are spawning in the San Francisco Bay. Commercial fishing is permitted from 5pm Sunday to noon on Friday, which means that aside from their daily trip to unload the catch, the crew spends all week on Ernie’s boat, the Ursula B.
This is Ernie’s 35th year fishing herring, but if you ask him whether he always wanted to be a fisherman, his answer is an emphatic “no.” His parents tried to convince him to become a fish buyer instead, and for a few years he tried odd jobs while honing his guitar playing skills.
But by the age of 19, Ernie had taken out a loan for $5,000 and bought his first boat. And other than a five-year stint as a harbor patrolman, he’s been fishing ever since.
This year, he has two young crew-members, Rebecca Resibick and Chase Todd. Rebecca comes from a fishing family herself, and has been on boats since she was an infant. Chase, on the other hand, comes from a construction background, and the past few weeks have been his first experience as a deckhand.
Three weeks into their first season together, Ernie, Rebecca and Chase had nothing but nice things to say about each other – a good thing, given that they share tight living quarters day in and day out on the open water. “I didn’t want a mismatched crew,” says Ernie, “and it has worked out great. They are great shipmates. We’ve had a lot of fun.”
They may have fun, but it’s still hard work. “If you are actively pursuing herring, you are setting, pulling, and moving the gear; setting, pulling and moving,” Ernie explains. “And that process can go on until, all of a sudden, it starts to get light out and you realize its daylight.” The crew rarely gets to sleep through the night, instead stealing naps when there is a lull in the work. “It’s a lot of hard, physical labor,” adds Rebecca.
This season started with a bang on January 2st. “We had a lot of fish in the first week,” exclaims Ernie. “I mean tons, and tons, and tons!” And a lot of fish meant only four hours of sleep in the first two days of fishing.
Ernie stresses that their fishing methods are sustainable. Commercial fishing of herring is capped at five percent of the total estimated biomass, meaning that 95 percent of the herring remains at sea. And Ernie’s crew uses nets designed only to catch to older, larger fish, leaving younger fish unscathed.
Ernie also tries to sell his fish locally when possible, and made his second sale to Siren Fish Co. last week. “I really believe in sending this fish to fresh market for local consumption,” says Ernie.
California’s drought has meant the Ursula B is traveling further to find fish. In past years, Ernie found all the fish he needed near the docks and close by in places like Sausalito. This year, the lack of rain means less fresh water filtering into the Bay, so the water is saltier than usual. “Due to a lack of fresh water in the estuary, the fish are seeking the extreme ends of the Bay,” says Ernie.
Though cold, rough, and foggy days are common on the Bay, the crew all seems to find meaning in the work. “It is a noble pursuit,” Ernie says. “It’s timeless. It’s still pulling fish one at a time with a hook in the case of salmon. It’s still getting herring with nets. This is how it’s been. It’s a tradition.”
Wondering how Ernie likes his herring? Smoked!
“It’s really a good fish. The way that I like it is I smoke it. What you do is you head and gut the fish, and then you butterfly it. You get two of those that are butterflied, you put them back-to-back, tie them with string around the tail, and hang them in your little smoker. Smoke them for about four hours. Salt-cure and marinate them prior, and put them in your little smoker.”