Go Fish: S.F.'s Coastal Foraging King Shows How to Fish (and Eat) Locally

By Peter Jamison

published: April 20, 2011

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.

"If you actually take a dried candlefish and light its head with a match, it will burn like a candle. I've seen it," Lombard tells his listeners. In another characteristic piece of instruction, he offers advice on preparing limpets, a type of sea snail, for cooking: "You have to take a hammer and just beat them and beat them until you feel like an evil man."

Lombard's reservoir of fish-related knowledge is deep. He spent seven years as a catch monitor for the California Department of Fish and Game and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, where his jobs included interviewing local sport fishermen about what they caught, and accompanying sport-fishing charter boats, or "party boats," on trips outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Fish and Game still uses an educational placard he created on California surf perch and bait fishes featuring photographs he took.

"Kirk has a lot of insight that most people don't because, at least until recently, he was down at the docks talking to people everyday about their catch," says Milton Love, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara and an expert on Pacific rockfish species who has interacted with Lombard professionally.

On Christmas Day 2010, Lombard was laid off. A lifelong fisherman, he turned to tours and commercial smelt fishing to pay the bills. (The smelt, he says, represent a labor of love, supplying little more than beer money.) As an extension of what has taken shape as his personal brand, he started a blog, the Monkeyface News (www.monkeyfacenews.typepad.com). It is named after the monkeyface eel, a local species of prickleback (not actually an eel) he catches through a distinctive method called "poke-poling," sticking a bamboo pole with a hook and bait affixed to its end into crevices among intertidal rocks.

The tours, which take place along a swathe of shoreline between Marina Green and Crissy Field, have become a minor sensation among foragers and foodies. "I love it," said Jeff McBride on one recent trip. As a transplant from Montana, he explained, he had been looking for a knowledgeable expert on the local fishing scene. In Lombard he had found his man. "People's brains change when they have children," McBride said. "It's the same sort of thing when you harvest your own food and take it home and prepare it. It satisfies the caveman in you."

Lombard is more Renaissance man than caveman. He is rangy, bespectacled, eloquent, and profane, intense of demeanor but vulnerable to sudden distractions. Outside his fish-related professions, he has moonlighted for years as a vocalist and tuba player (not simultaneously) in a local rock band, Rube Waddell. He grew up in subsidized housing for artists in Manhattan's West Village, the child of stage performers, and acquired his love of the outdoors from his grandfather, a Santa Cruz native who, when not singing for Paul Ash and His Orchestra, dedicated himself to hunting and fishing. If Ernest Hemingway and Gilda Radner had through some quirk of time and space managed to procreate, Kirk Lombard might be the result.

True to his background, Lombard's recreational fishing exploits are sometimes akin to performance art. In March, he treated an SF Weekly reporter and photographer to an unusual spectacle: fishing for surf perch through a storm drain in Mission Bay. Casting his line into the drain, which eventually opened on water flowing in from the bay, Lombard caught three fish in quick succession. "You think you're bad? You ain't shit, man," he cried, reeling furiously as a hooked perch gave him a fight. "You live in a drain." A female passerby, incredulous, stopped to gape: "Is that a fish in that little hole?"

Lombard acknowledges that he eats few fish caught east of the Golden Gate Bridge. Except in areas exposed to a steady flow of incoming ocean water, he believes, it's best to avoid most of what's caught within the bay. There are exceptions, including migratory species such as sardines and halibut, which don't hang out in the bay long enough to absorb toxins from urban pollution. All of the fish harvested through the Mission Bay drain were tossed back alive.

But he is very serious about eating local fish. His ForageSF tours invariably include an exhortation to support the commercial fisheries of San Francisco and Northern California, including some that are frowned on by Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Lombard is part of a group of local fish experts who insist, contrary to the recommendations of some environmental activists, that the best way to save the oceans is by sourcing your seafood close to home. This, he says, is the common gospel that unites activities as diverse as commercial A-frame smelt fishing, poke-poling for monkeyface eel, and delivering anecdotes to crowds on the brutalization of sea snails.

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."

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.

"Frankly, if we got three smelt here, I'm going to be really happy, because this is brutal," Lombard says. Lowering the wide lip of his net to the surface of the water — wielding it like an enormous dustpan — he charges into the waves. As he prowls the surf, his weaving motions call to mind a one-line fragment of an old song of the Ohlone Indians who lived on California's Central Coast — also avid consumers of smelt — that is recounted in Malcolm Margolin's The Ohlone Way: "Dancing on the brink of the world."

"I've got one," Lombard cries. Then: "Two! Three!" On a good night, he brings in 100 pounds of smelt within a few hours. He hauls his meager catch to shore and displays them to a friend, Loren Wilson, who has joined him for the evening. The fish have a striking silver sheen, like freshly minted dimes. Lombard eagerly holds one to his nose. They don't smell like fish at all, but like fresh cucumbers. "Spirinchus starksi," he breathes, calling by its Latin name the trio of flashing night smelt that will, it turns out, be the sum of his haul for the evening.

"They're tasty," Wilson chimes in. "They're really tasty."