Lombard sells his smelt to Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco. Situated in the hivelike cluster of fishmongers inside Pier 33 — the business also has a retail storefront in Berkeley — Monterey is generally regarded as the most venerable of local seafood providers, and supplies many of the Bay Area's upscale restaurants.

Tom Worthington, a partner in Monterey Fish, is a professionally trained cook who was named an "Environmental Hero" by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2002. He has a compact build, boyish features, and the earnest air that is often the mark of a great salesman. He acknowledges that he is a bit gun-shy about encounters with the press these days. Worthington felt his company was unfairly knocked for not going far enough in its efforts to purvey sustainable seafood in a February article in San Francisco magazine.

Its author, Erik Vance, had instead chosen as his protagonist Kenny Belov, partner with Netscape cofounder Bill Foss in a small, Sausalito-based restaurant, Fish, which opened seven years ago. Belov also runs a wholesale business, Two X Sea, which started last year. The restaurant and wholesale operation adhere to what Belov considers the strictest standards of seafood sustainability. Fish refuses to sell many of the types of seafood on offer at Monterey.

"They almost had what I call a Nancy Reagan notion of sustainability — 'Just Say No,'" Worthington says with irritation. More troubling, he says, was the article's negative depiction of some local fishermen engaged in what he says are actually sustainable practices.

Most notable among these, perhaps, was the dismissal of Northern California trawlers, which drag nets along the ocean floor to catch groundfish, or bottom-dwelling species. Some of San Francisco's most beloved seafood dishes — think of the sand dabs and petrale sole that generations of diners have savored at Tadich Grill — are groundfish. Yet some environmental activists have declared them unsustainable, citing the damage caused to habitat by dragging a net over it. As the website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch division states, "Most sand dabs are caught using habitat-damaging bottom trawls."

Experts say this assertion is untrue, at least insofar as it applies to most trawling in Northern California. Dragging in environments with rich underwater structural habitat, such as coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, is indeed destructive. But in the waters off Northern California, sole and sand dabs are caught in sandy, muddy bottoms, and the damage done to this type of habitat from trawling is equivalent to that of a winter storm.

"It's much quicker to recover, because you're not destroying substrate. That kind of fishing is sustainable, as long as you don't overfish," says John McCosker, chairman of the Department of Aquatic Biology at the California Academy of Sciences. Worthington concurs: "Most of the time," he says, trawlers are "just making a mud cloud or kicking up sand."

Belov says the tolerance Worthington and others show for local trawling is a copout. "I think the oceans are too damaged for us to say, 'It's just lightly damaging the bottom,'" he says. When pressed about the exact creatures, other than groundfish, that might be harmed by dragging nets through sand and mud, he acknowledges that he isn't entirely sure. "I'm not going to pretend to know every being that's down there. I'm sure you're going to get some damage to crabs. Any kind of larvae that can be there." He also says that the quality of fish caught by trawling is inferior because the net abrades the fish.

Alison Barratt, communications manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, says the negative view of trawling expressed in the organization's materials for consumers is meant to be interpreted on a broader scale, and may not be entirely accurate applied to specific local fisheries such as San Francisco's groundfish trawlers. "We're not looking at very specific ones, so when you see a recommendation on a pocket guide, it's going to be for a region rather than for a certain place," she says. "We really don't get into individual fishing practices."

This is the sort of attitude that exasperates the Worthingtons and Lombards of the world — deeply knowledgeable and experienced experts familiar with a local fishery and its practitioners. Worthington remarks, "What I've always told everyone is, 'How can you take an industry this large and boil it down to something the size of a credit card?' They work with the broadest brush possible, and are looking to give people a simple answer."

There's another problem with lumping San Francisco's commercial fisheries together with those that have pillaged the oceans in other parts of the globe: The decline in many local species simply isn't the fault of fishermen. Development and accompanying pollution in the upper watershed, as well as the diversion of water for inland agriculture, have often done more harm to fish than overharvesting. This is particularly true of salmon, whose upriver habitats have been sucked dry to irrigate Central Valley farms.

"In San Francisco Bay, it's not overfishing," says McCosker, who created the first seafood-sustainability watch list, "Good Fish/Bad Fish," a precursor to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's project. (The list is no longer actively maintained, and the Cal Academy now directs consumers to the aquarium's list.) "It's insults we've done to the Bay since the Gold Rush." Local species, he says, "can tolerate human predation. What they can't tolerate is dams that prevent them from getting upstream to spawn."


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5 comments
Nvbro
Nvbro

Belov can afford to be draconian. His resturant is in upper class Sausalito, with a lunch sandwich running in excess of $20. His sponsor is a Microsoft founder. His view on sustainable seafood is the rich get to eat seafood, the poor must catch it themselves our their out of luck.His view on California Market Squid being fine, I do not support. Its a quotaless fishery. Anyone who observed the fleet do its best to remove every squid from Monterey Bay as I did would be hard pressed to call it sustainable. And they did a damnd good job. Yes they left enough to reproduce, but in the process raided the pantry for the entire food web of the area. Its akin to removing the foundation of a building. Also the damage to the struggling White Seabass population in the form of bycatch, by the seiners is disturbing.

Matters2me
Matters2me

Recently watched a PBS special 'Save the Bay', and it is hard to believe that this natural wonder was almost completely destroyed.

Thank you for your great article about San Francisco Fishing, it reminds those of us(including myself) that fish are not naturally frozen or come from a can. Good Old Fashioned Fishing can be a fun family outing while getting something healthy, tasty and sustainable for dinner.

the kid
the kid

The night smelt he referred to are called White Bait and were caught and sold all over the bay area in the 60's & 70's when I worked in the wholesale fish business. Just pull off their little heads and their intestines come out in one fell swoop! Deep fried they are like eating french fries.We used to ask our girl friends if they "wanted to go watch the Grunion run? We would takethem to the beach and make out. Simpler times for sure!

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

They eat smelt on the east coast and even sell them in a bag frozen at my local grocer just outside Cleveland.

 

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