When I first began the effort to work with fishermen directly out of the San Francisco region, I did so with the knowledge that my career as a chef in the city had not prepared me well for this journey. Having always worked with food distributors when sourcing fish, I had exactly zero connection to the local ports and those who fish out of them. So, the titanic effort that it took to make some headway in this regard was accomplished through study, trial and (more often) error, and a fair amount of luck.
The effort began, as it always does, with a few names. I pay attention to my fish distributors and their price lists. Every once in a while you see a couple of local names pop up in the price lists with credit for their work as the representatives of the limited and faltering local catch. The fishing vessels, “F/V” in boat terminology, are more often credited than their captains. In my small network of purveyors, there was one man who seemed to be the exception to this rule in the Bay Area — a mysterious small boat captain out of Bodega Bay named Josh Churchman. This name would often get mentioned as a standout on the daily price lists so my journey to find local fishermen, in small part, started with Josh.
Josh has been fishing off the coast of Marin County since the 1970s, primarily targeting rock cod. He still uses the same boat that he made himself over 40 years ago. His journey is documented in The Whale That Lit the World, a whimsical and poetic autobiography that sheds light on his impulsive beginnings as a fisherman, his early success, later disappointments, the politics of fishing in California, the struggle that pits fisherman against all the odds, and the passion that keeps the very few left in this trade connected to the water. I discovered that he had a book when I was first trying to figure out how to contact him. A relic of a bygone era, this man doesn’t even have a cell phone. But, he does pop up on Google search and on Amazon. I had a lead.
Knowing Josh was probably an old fashioned type, I got a hold of him the old fashioned way — by calling the harbor master’s office in Bodega Bay. She gave me his household landline. Landline? In 2022? Yes. This was definitely the guy.
After a couple of rings, Josh picked up the phone. A tremendously candid and thoughtful voice came through, and after some small talk, I invited Josh to lunch. We met in his hometown of Bolinas, a village tucked away on the coast of Marin about an hour outside of SF. Sporting a well-worn and sun-beaten baseball cap, a wrinkled flannel over a t-shirt, and pair of quick access sandals with socks, Josh was already seated outside at the Coast Café when I showed up for our meeting.
His eyes, a flashy sapphire blue, communicated an energy and liveliness that contrasted starkly with his work-worn body. A white beard against a sun-scorched face revealed his age and spoke to his profession as a person who has spent most of their life under direct sunlight; from the sky above and also from the reflection of light bouncing off the waters below. As sturdy as a barn, Josh has the build of a man who has spent most of his life laboring with heavy weight and enduring long hours of concentration under elements. Sitting there at the café, stoic as a barnacle, he reminded me of an old walrus, filled with experience and stories — moveable, but only if the curiosity of a fishy bite piqued his interest.
Over a lunch that consisted of fresh oysters, chowder, and fried fish, we talked about the span of Josh’s career on the open water. He took me through how he got started; fishing the summer for income to pay his living expenses and school (UC Berkeley), and how the passion for fishing (a “disease”, Josh calls it) developed into a sustainable career for him by which he could support his family.
Though he concedes that few, if any, could make a living the way he operates now, Josh has had a fairly balanced life and seems to want for nothing. But this is not to say that Josh has not struggled like so many other fishermen over the decades. In the current state of California fishery, there seems to be severe inhibitors to even the most humble and frugal who operate in this domain. And Josh’s struggles, as he recalls them to me, probably pale in comparison to the daunting tasks ahead of a younger generation of professionals. Those challenges, just to name a few, include severe regulation of accessible fishing areas along the coast, rising costs of fuel, unreliable weather patterns, and severe shortages in labor to help work the boat.
Finishing up the last of my fish and chips, I look across at Josh, and on the table is one last remaining fresh oyster, glistening in the muddled fog-screened sunlight draping into the outdoor terrace where we sit. I offer him the last slurp. Josh, a gourmet, and not keen on the notion of waste, concedes to the task and does away with the last oceany bite. “I always did like oysters, though they don’t fill you up the same as a Bocaccio,” Josh mutters as turns over the last shell. The Bocaccio that Josh is referring to is a species of rockfish common to Northern California waters and quite abundant, but you would never find it in a grocery store or a high-end fishmonger. Josh’s affinity for the less desirable local fish is one of the key reasons I was interested in his work. Favoring the local and underutilized fish is what this man is all about — in stark contrast to the markets that he serves. It’s a paradox of the modern world of seafood, where the consumer’s demand for international fish is partially responsible for the eradication of local fish.
After lunch, we walked along the small shoreline road that hugs the inner channel of Bolinas, admiring the low tide, the tiny channel that only the smallest of ocean bearing vessels can breach, and the handful of fisherman busy in the tasks of regular boat maintenance. As we progress, Josh stops periodically to talk with the fisherman along the channel, or to make a comment about some aspect of the tide flow and the unique topography of this special protected inlet of the California coast. Forgetting for a moment that I had just recently read his book, Josh describes to me his first seasons on the water here, braving the treacherous tide breaks in his small boat, but netting more fish than he knew what to do with (sometimes), but always feeling satisfied with what nature and his own ingenuity and labor could provide.
Nearing the end of the road, just before the pathway becomes the beachhead that caps Bolinas facing the distant city of San Francisco to the South, we stop at the pier looking over the mouth of the channel where a man is casting out a single rod, hoping for an afternoon catch. Josh calls out to him and instructs him to try a different area further up the inlet. “Too low of a tide to catch halibut or ground fish with these low waters,” he remarks, as if this were common knowledge. As we turn back towards the town, two surfers suited up for an afternoon session pass along. Bolinas has a great little ocean break right of the nose of the beachhead, but few really know about it. “Maybe that is the unspoken privilege,” I think to myself as we continue towards the sun, setting over the hilltops of the majestic Marin coast. Few recognize the bounty of the things we have right in front of us — something that Josh has perhaps always seen.
Peter J Hemsley