Having worked as a chef in the Bay Area for more than a decade, I have seen my fill of diverse ingredients from both the local basin and luxury products from the farthest reaches of the world. But when it comes to the subject of fish, the selection available to us in the food industry has always been something of a curious conflict; a juxtaposition of faded potential and untapped possibility. Particularly strange considering that San Francisco is built on an expansive peninsula that snuggles into the open Pacific Ocean as if placed there by some act of divine providence. Getting great selections of local fish should be easy here in the Bay Area, right? The answer is no, and the root of this issue is more complex than one might think. It revolves around two drivers — taste and politics.
In my own restaurant, we used to operate as most establishments do in this field; which is to say, with a dependence on a network of trusted distributors who act as the buyers and middlemen for the expansive world of seafood. Truly an international industry. Price lists of available fresh fish are updated weekly, if not daily, from our purveyors with a decent spread of local products (maybe 15 percent of the offerings) and the majority filled with common fish and shellfish sourced farther afield on the West Coast, the Northeast, and increasingly, from international waters and aquaculture farms.
As a chef who only wants the finest offering for his guests, I understand the importance of the logistics and importation of fresh seafood. The market demands it and, in some cases, you really can’t do without it. Lobsters and scallops, which are abundant in the Northeast, can only be found in the wild in limited quantities on the West Coast. And farmed shrimp from southern or international waters, though not an equivalent alternative, is a ready and economical substitute for the luxurious spot prawn. But when we consider the vast wealth of resources in our local waters just off the coast of California collectively, the availability ratios of local fish to national/international fish, just don’t seem to add up.
Taste and trend have shaped the fish industry more poignantly than perhaps any other factor. Fashionable trends like sushi, poke, lobster rolls, shrimp toast, or even philosophical points of view like the pescatarian diet, dictate what the fish distributor will source and buy. This shift in market buying habits has happened over the last 30 years as these trends have become entrenched and reinforced by the distribution channels sourcing fish from all over the world — to the detriment of the local markets.
At this point in the Bay Area of 2022, there are only a handful of “local” fish that we recognize as deserving headliners on our menus like halibut, black cod, rock cod, and of course, dungeness crab and king salmon when in season. But there is so much more out there. Most of the abundant and less fished species like Pacific skate, petrale sole, starry flounder, ling cod, surf perch, anchovies, monkeyface prickleback, and white crockers ( just to name a few) are not fished by commercial fishermen because there is no outlet for them to sell these products. The market demands tuna, salmon, and black cod, and if you are not fishing those items in California, you are likely not fishing at all. And so, this is one reason port towns all along the coast, including San Francisco, have diminished to a ghostly shell of their former glory.
As a restaurant increasingly concerned with the provenance and traceability of our products (i.e. favoring the local over the international), I took it as a personal mission to go to the port towns of the Bay Area, meet some of the local fishermen, and talk shop. If possible, I was going to buy what I could directly from these fishermen, and in the process, try to figure out why certain species of local fish were not showing up to our distributors.
Many of the fishermen I was lucky enough to speak with (I currently work directly with several of them in sourcing for the restaurant) are holders of single or limited quantity state-issued permits for specific kinds of fishery. Meaning that these fishermen are highly regulated by the permits that they hold, allowed to fish for single species of fish or shellfish and nothing else. Depending upon how they fish (ie. hook and line, drag net, pot/cage, etc.) they are not allowed to bring in bycatch for sale or personal consumption. Even if these fish will otherwise perish after being brought up from the deep — otherwise they will be penalized with a fine. In some cases, fishermen are required to have a state employed “observer” on the boat to maintain ethical or legal fishing practice. Additionally, as if to add insult to injury, the State of California has a limited amount of commercial permits for all fishery types. Some of which are very expensive (up to several hundred thousand for squid, crab, and spot prawns) and these permits do not increase in number based on demand for them. Permits can be purchased or transferred to other fishermen, but the process can literally take years. And well funded non-government environmental protection groups have, in some cases, outbid local fishermen with the intention of putting these permits to bed.
Just when you thought this story could not get any worse, it does. Some years ago, in an act to protect important offshore fisheries and marine life along the California coast, the federal government and the State of California engaged in a huge scientific study to establish what sections of the ocean should be protected from commercial fishery. These scientists engaged the help of longtime fishermen in port towns all along the coast, using their expertise to identify the most productive and valued areas. Ironically, when the study was finished, many of the best fishing spots in the state ended up under both federal and state protection, limiting the productive capacity of fishermen statewide. Many went bankrupt. Selling their boats, permits, and thus their livelihood. And so now, those that remain, are severely handicapped. Watched like hawks by government agencies like the Department of Fish and Game or nondescript Federal drones. They can only bring in target fish species predicated on their holding of certain expensive and limited permits. Yikes. So much for the dream of abundant and diverse local fish. For that, we have to go to the international markets — less regulated, non-traceable, and brought in over vast distances, leaving a carbon footprint that cannot be ignored.
So what is the overall message of this story? It boils down to this: In an effort to protect local resources from an overbearing consumer market, we have turned to international waters at the expense of our local industry and professional ethics. Fishing in California has become costly and dangerous. We will find ourselves with a glut in the market with few left holding the expertise and permits to fish correctly because politics has decided that this artisan field was not worth saving. What we are overlooking is that the ocean is a giant pool and we are all connected to it. You cannot protect one part of this fluid resource while pillaging the rest.
Peter J Hemsley