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Area of the Chevron spill two weeks after the leak was detected.

Herring fishers sue Chevron for answers about spill in San Francisco Bay

on December 20, 2021

Amid the hum of the Bay Area’s cities, it is easy to forget that to live here is to live alongside a vast ecosystem. The biggest and most vital is the Pacific Ocean. And once a year, the ocean reveals its abundance to herring fishers. 

“‘The water will be white, that’s when you know,” said Keith Nguyen, a kayak fisher from San Jose.

Nguyen is describing the herring spawn, an annual event from November to February, when adult herring migrate to reproduce in San Francisco Bay. It is a supernatural sight, transforming the water into a mosaic of shimmering silver fish bodies. Nguyen has been fishing herring for eight years and regularly fills two buckets with the little fish, which he records on his blog, The Lost Anchovy.

Herring are an important  ‘keystone’ species, vital to supporting salmon and halibut, that in turn support seals and sea lions that feed  larger predators. The bay offers sheltered conditions for the herring eggs, which cling to rocks and weeds to incubate before hatching into larvae that are carried out to sea by ocean currents. But fishers say this fragile balance is under threat.

Herring

‘Anything that affects the fisheries and our ability to eat healthy food in the bay is disappointing.’

In February, 500-750 gallons of a diesel product poured into the bay from Chevron’s Richmond refinery. A community member raised the alarm, calling authorities after seeing a sheen on the water. For herring fishers, the spill was even more concerning.

“Anything that affects the fisheries and our ability to eat healthy food in the bay is disappointing,” Nguyen said.

Chevron said that the diesel mixture contained polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a chemical family that can be toxic. Attorney Stuart Gross said the compound can be lethal for fragile herring eggs and, combined with ultraviolet light, affects the eggs at an atomic level. They  ‘‘burn up from the inside out,” said Gross, who is representing the San Francisco Herring Association in its ongoing lawsuit against Chevron. 

A Chevron spokesperson declined to comment on the case, saying, ‘‘as a matter of policy, we don’t discuss ongoing litigation.’’ At the time of the spill, Chevron posted an oil line leak FAQ that said it was “unlikely any measurable sediment contamination or impacts to aquatic life will occur.’’

However, Gross said that while about 99% of the herring spawned in the two weeks before the spill, the pollutants in the bay damaged the herring larvae. The lawsuit against Chevron is threefold, said Gross, whose environmental victories include a $4.2 million settlement with PG&E in 2018 over pollution from an outdated gas plant. His case attempts to have the herring population monitored; to force Chevron to take precautions to keep another spill from damaging the bay; and to have Chevron’s work classified as “ultra-hazardous.” This classification would put a heavier burden on the company to keep its products from contaminating the environment.  

Cleanup complete after a Chevron oil spill in February
The unified command inspects the Richmond shoreline two weeks after a diesel spill from the Chevron refinery. (Courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

A unified command of federal, state and local agencies, including Chevron was set up to contain the spill. Booms were deployed to protect wildlife, but Gross claims that the diesel was corralled toward vital herring spawning areas south of the wharf.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard assessment did not close the area to recreational or commercial fishing after the spill. The spill’s effect on the environment has still not been reported, 10 months later.

‘‘We are still awaiting results of an investigation into the incident,’’ said Eric Laughlin from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Nguyen is a hobbyist, not associated with Gross’s case, but he eats what he catches in the bay. 

“I am a little worried.” he said, adding that he wants to know more about the toxins that contaminated the bay from the Chevron spill. 

‘‘It’s a public health concern,” he said, “and those facts should be made readily available so that we know.  And if it was a mistake, then they should be held accountable.”

Herring fisher
Keith Nguyen fishes for herring on San Francisco Bay. (Max Walker)

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