Photograph by Joseph Schell
"It's an amphibian fuckfest." Kirk Lombard balefully surveys a swampy section of trail leading to an isolated beach on the coast south of San Francisco. His declaration is accurate. The croaking of frogs rises from beach scrub crowding the muddy stretch into which Lombard stomps, sludge sucking at his imitation Crocs. Attired in waders, a tattered California Department Fish and Game jacket, and a San Francisco Giants cap worn backward, he resembles some kind of postapocalyptic wildlife monitor, his uniform thrown together from a haphazard sampling of wardrobe styles.
The sun is going down as he reaches the sand. To the east rise the dark slopes of the forested coast range. The sound of frogs is now inaudible beneath the pounding surf. Lombard pauses and unfurls a net from between two poles. It is an A-frame fishing net a few feet tall. "Local Native Americans up the California coast used this kind of net for all kinds of things," he explains.
A 43-year-old San Francisco resident, Lombard is a commercial fisherman of night smelt. It's a fish you might not have heard of, although it's being served at a few of the Bay Area's most respected restaurants, including Nopa and Chez Panisse, which offer on their menus smelt caught by Lombard. Known at some venues as "fries with eyes," the finger-length fish are fried and served whole to restaurant patrons.
The smelt is common off the shores of Central and Northern California, though it has not been widely consumed by humans since before the first Spanish colonists arrived. But if Lombard and like-minded associates in his business have their way, it's the kind of fish that all of us might be eating more of in the future.
Questions surrounding environmentally responsible seafood consumption have gotten a lot of buzz lately in both foodie circles and among commercial fishermen and fishmongers. These questions really boil down to one: What should we be eating from the ocean? Aquatic resources that for thousands of years seemed inexhaustible have in the past century come under severe strain from environmental degradation and overfishing, raising the possibility that some of our most popular seafood species could be hunted to extinction.
The most prominent example of such a catastrophe was the North Atlantic cod fishery, which collapsed in the 1990s because of excessive fishing. The Pew Oceans Commission concluded in a 2003 report that 30 percent of fish species it examined "are overfished or are being fished unsustainably. An increasing number of these species are being driven toward extinction." The Monterey Bay Aquarium issues a wallet-size, color-coded "Seafood Watch" list of species — green is good, yellow not so good, and red bad — that lovers of fish are encouraged to use if they want to eat with a clear conscience. The list, and considerations of seafood sustainability generally, weighs a fishery's health and the catch methods it uses. Tuna caught by pelagic long-line fishing, for example — which involves hooks strung on a line that reaches for miles and indiscriminately catches large creatures in the open oceans, such as sharks and sea turtles — has a "red" designation on the watch list.
In an age grown acutely aware of the ecological and health problems wrought by industrial food production, the conundrum of what to eat — what Berkeley-based author Michael Pollan famously dubbed the "Omnivore's Dilemma" — is one that various journalists and activists have been pondering when it comes to our land-based food supply. But the future of wild fish, and of the men and women who hunt them, has an immediacy in San Francisco, a city with culturally rich traditions of both seafood and fishing.
The history of San Francisco's fisheries has been one of boom and bust, trending toward depletion. (See a timeline of fishing in San Francisco.) From the Chinese shrimpers of the late 19th century onward — San Francisco's herring fleet, which exists almost solely to supply consumers in Japan with herring roe, today represents the last commercial fishery based within a municipality in the U.S. — one fishery after another has witnessed its particular resource dwindle. The severe curtailing of California's commercial king salmon season by state regulators in 2006, followed by canceled or limited salmon seasons since, marked a watershed for both seafood-deprived consumers and impoverished fishermen. These days, much of what the tourists eat at restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf is flash-frozen and flown in from halfway across the world.
Or so the conventional thinking goes. Lombard and some others in the local fish business don't think it has to be that way. According to their view of San Francisco's fishing fortunes, there's still plenty of great local seafood to be eaten — not just smelt, but squid, sole, crab, oysters, halibut, albacore tuna, sardines, and more — and will be for some time to come, if we fish, shop, and eat responsibly.
Significantly, they also believe that correct treatment of our marine resources won't come about as a result of seafood-sustainability lists or extreme environmental activism, but through a surprisingly simple and enticing dictum: Eat what's caught here, whether with your own rod and reel or in the nets of San Francisco's commercial fishermen. When it comes to seafood, some argue, going "locavore" just might be the best way to preserve our oceans and the fish that swim in them.
The morning after his smelting expedition, Lombard meets a group of two dozen people at the tip of the St. Francis jetty. This is how he makes money when he isn't catching fish to sell: giving tours about recreational fishing and coastal foraging opportunities. The tours are conducted through ForageSF, a local company that organizes wild-food markets and educational programs on foraging foods such as greens and mushrooms.
It's overcast, and a hard wind is up. Lombard shouts to be heard by a group that includes parents, toddlers, and a few twenty- and thirtysomethings. The tour is a combination of sport-fishing tips (Lombard gives detailed instructions on setting crab pots off Baker Beach), detailed explanations of the workings of marine ecosystems (including vital tips on how, where, and when to gather shellfish so as to avoid poisoning), and general aquatic shtick.