MARIN RESIDENTS looking to watch an aerial show should go no further than the Tiburon shoreline, where birds are diving into the water and snatching up roe as part of the annual herring run.
Huge flocks of birds, most of which were sea gulls and cormorants, crowded the waters around Elephant Rock on Wednesday, squawking loudly as they enjoyed a tasty meal. The birds gather in the San Francisco Bay each year to nosh on the eggs left by tens of thousands of herring during spawning season.
Ryan Bartling, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, was out on the bay Wednesday inspecting the number of eggs in the water in an attempt to estimate how many herring have visited the area. He said there's been a lot of activity on the water.
"The spawn started last Thursday and there were recreational fishermen with throw nets and the commercial fleet was active earlier this week," Bartling said.
It's too early to tell exactly how strong this year's spawn will be, but Bartling said the season -- which lasts through March or until quotas are met -- is off to a good start. This season's herring quota is 3,737 tons for the San Francisco Bay, a nearly 31 percent increase from last year's quota of 2,854 tons.
Herring numbers have greatly fluctuated within the past few decades and the fish is still recovering from a decline that began in the early 2000s. There were so few fish during the 2008-09 season that regulators banned commercial fishing in 2009-10 to allow the population to recover.
William "Zeke" Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said the current season looks promising as one of the commercial fishing fleets was able to net half of its quota in the first day or two.
He said it's exciting to watch the local sea life gorge on herring and roe.
"The birds and the sea lions have just been going crazy. The sea lions are making all kinds of noises and the birds are squawking," Grader said.
The strong herring run has attracted a record number of birds to the Tiburon Peninsula and Richardson Bay in particular, said Anna Weinstein, seabird program manager for Audubon California.
"The counts of birds has doubled this year," she said.
Bird populations were about 10,000 last year during the peak day. This year they are at 23,000. There were as few as 6,500 counted on the peak day in 2006-07.
Weinstein went out and viewed the scene earlier this week.
"I toured the Tiburon Peninsula (Sunday) morning and things are incredible: herring running, sea lions feasting, thousands of waterbirds," she said. "At low tide the roe are exposed and the gulls are going crazy."
Most of the commercially fished herring are caught with the intent of extracting the roe, which is a popular delicacy in Japan. But more and more local fisherman are catching the fish for its meat.
Camilla Lombard, who co-owns San Francisco-based Sea Forager Seafood with her fisherman husband Kirk Lombard, said she grew up eating pickled herring because of her Danish roots. Now she and her husband enjoy eating the fish grilled.
"It's somewhere between a smelt and a sardine. They're definitely fishy but they're clean tasting too. They're not a fatty fish," Camilla Lombard said.
Kirk Lombard is well-known for leading herring fishing tours in his free time and praising the local resource that so few Bay Area residents consume. The recreational fisherman and coastal tour leader turned his passion for local fish into a sustainable seafood subscription delivery business in September. And guess what's on this week's menu -- herring.
"This is our local resource. This is an amazingly abundant animal that despite everything we've done to the environment, they continue to thrive," Kirk Lombard said. "It's a wonderful species and it's delicious and it's time for the American populace to start to embrace eating a little lower on the food chain."
Grader agrees with Lombard's views on the small fish, saying herring are especially good for eating because they don't tend to pick up toxins in the environment and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. He said more people are discovering its pleasant taste.
"In the last few years we've seen restaurants like Fish in Sausalito do more with them," Grader said.
Kenny Belov, owner of Fish restaurant in Sausalito, said he can do everything with herring from broiling it to curing it.
"It's a very versatile fish. It can hold up to any method of cooking. It also pickles very well and smokes very well," Belov said. "It's one of our local treasures that is under utilized."
Knowledge of the fish is also increasing thanks to the Sausalito Herring Festival, which will hold its second event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at Garbrielson Park on the Sausalito waterfront.
Heather Richard, co-organizer of the festival, said the event will feature a variety of herring dishes from local restaurants for people to taste.
"We're trying to promote eating local and eating low on the food chain," Richard said.
Contact Megan Hansen via email at email@example.com or via Twitter at http://twitter.com/hansenmegan. Follow her blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/bureaucratsandbaking. Reporter Mark Prado contributed to this report.