So if you chuck the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines out of your wallet, how to pick and choose? Worthington says some of the same principles that govern a responsible approach to eating animals and produce — principally an effort to find local foodstuffs during the seasons in which they are harvested — can be applied to fish. "Personally, I would do it like I would with vegetables," he says. "Basically, follow the seasons. For me, it's, 'What's in season now? What's happening here?' I get to eat the pick of the litter, and my favorites are squid, sardines, and sand dabs." All are local items.

For residents of the Bay Area, it might actually be this simple, perhaps through nothing more than geographical luck. Northern California's fisheries — squid, Dungeness crab, and even salmon, when regulators allow them to be harvested — are among the most rigorously managed anywhere. The three principal catch methods used by commercial fisheries — hook-and-line, traps or pots, and soft-bottom trawling — are viewed as sustainable by reputable experts, though some, like Belov, would disagree about the environmental harm caused by trawling.

Lombard says he saw firsthand as a regulator that the restrictions imposed upon San Francisco fishermen, whose boats' motions are literally tracked minute to minute by the Department of Fish and Game via GPS, are more exacting than those applied to commercial fisheries elsewhere. "There's no fisherman in the world that is more tightly monitored than a California fisherman, and that's great," he says. "But we do these guys a great disservice if we then turn around and say, 'It's not sustainable.' If that's not sustainable, then what the fuck is it? Don't make it the hardest place in the world to fish and at the same time penalize the guy who's doing it the right way. It's not fair."

Yet even if we can all agree to eat local seafood, that could mean many, many days with no fish on the menu, or at least not the fish that chefs want. "We source local whenever we can," says Martin Reed of I Love Blue Sea, another fishmonger to whom Lombard sells his smelt catch. "It's not always possible. Sometimes the water's really rough, and you just can't get any local seafood." (Reed, who supports a sustainable approach, follows the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium when procuring fish.) Even Worthington, while advocating local seafood consumption as an ideal, says he is obligated in practice to sell fish from other parts of the world.

The future of fish consumption in San Francisco, like the fate of fisheries the world over, is difficult to foretell. Part of the problem with defining the health of the oceans is that history's lessons on the subject are incomplete and sometimes puzzling.

One of the bigger collapses in the history of California's fisheries — the dwindling of the Central Coast's sardine population following the boom days of Cannery Row, when tinned sardines were the largest commercial seafood product in the country — was followed by a rebound for the species. Scientists now believe that the sardine decline was caused in large part not by overfishing but by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a shifting of oceanic temperatures, occurring every 20 to 30 years, that was discovered in 1997.

"Even when everybody's on the same page, it's very hard to maintain sustainable fisheries, because it's very hard to predict what a fish population will do," says Love, the UC Santa Barbara marine biologist. "You're kind of shooting at a moving target."

Lombard, and others like him, are fishing, or selling fish, or eating fish, in uncertain times. But many of them are also trying to responsibly preserve a culture — to retain and enhance fishing traditions driven by appetite and engagement with the natural world, rather than scolding. In their daily lives and work, we see the last widely viable example of human predation of wild creatures.

Fishing, a form of hunting and gathering, remains the last commercial vestige in America of the food-supply process that sustained Homo sapiens and our precursors for most of history. And unlike the agricultural food systems that came to dominate on land, it has always been a mysterious and capricious business. Some experts are openly impatient with talk of "sustainability," asserting that it is based on the faulty premise that human beings can somehow predict, or control, the sea's larger ecological trends.

"The whole catchword of 'sustainability,' that kind of drives me nuts," says Brian Villicich, a biologist with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. "We have no control over Mother Nature."


The darkness is nearly complete as Lombard lowers his A-frame net into the surf. On this windy stretch of shoreline in San Mateo County — a location Lombard requested remain undisclosed to prevent competition — the prospects for smelt don't look great tonight. The fish run up into the surf to spawn, but the cone of light from Lombard's headlamp flashes over choppy waves the color of dirty dishwater, indicating that the tide is thick with freshwater runoff. The conditions are inhospitable for smelt to lay their eggs.

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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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