In Birthplace of Local Food, Fish Imports Take Over the Menu
Josh Haner/The New York Times
Paul Johnson has worked at the Monterey Fish Market in San Francisco for 30 years and has witnessed a dramatic downward shift in the local supply of seafood.
By KATHERINE ELLISON
Published: December 11, 2009
Tadich Grill, San Francisco’s oldest seafood restaurant, now serves farmed salmon flown in from Scotland. Sam’s Grill & Seafood, which also dates to the Gold Rush, features shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan halibut.
The San Francisco region is where the locavore movement got its name. And decades before restaurants like Chez Panisse in Berkeley were recommending their local leeks, the establishments near San Francisco’s wharves took pride in their fresh, local sand dabs and petrale.
These days, fish flown in from around the world is more likely to be on offer. The change began gradually, but has recently sped up. Data from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federal advisory group, reveal the cumulative effect: a 71 percent drop in commercial fishing revenue along the north-central California coast since 1990.
The effects are everywhere, seen in the number of idle fishermen or those who have left the profession altogether — membership in the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is down by two-thirds in 15 years — and the fish markets filled with Vietnamese catfish and Mexican spiny lobster.
Fish from local bays has been “one of the last local foods to go,” said Jessica Prentice, a Berkeley chef known for coining the word “locavore.” She added: “Seafood was one of the few things, well into the industrial age, that people associated with place. If you’re on a particular coast, or bay, or lake, you typically want to eat the seafood that’s fresh and local.” These days in the Bay Area, that means Dungeness crab in the winter and precious little else.
With beloved local petrale scarce for the past three months, Andrew Carvalho, the head chef at Sam’s, has had to make do with sea bream from Greece.
Not long ago, said Larry Collins, a San Francisco hook-and-line fisherman, “we fished salmon in the summertime, crab in the wintertime and rock cod whenever we needed to make the mortgage. Now we fish crab in the wintertime and scramble in the summertime.”
San Francisco’s situation is part of a national phenomenon. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that more than three-fourths of the fish Americans eat comes from other countries, mostly China. Yet the trend has special resonance around San Francisco. Robert E. Ross, executive director of the California Fisheries and Seafood Institute, a trade group, estimated that Bay Area residents eat, on average, about double the amount of fish consumed annually by most other Americans.
Many diners recall when local seafood — salmon, red snapper, abalone — was abundant. “I think about it all the time,” said Paul Johnson, the chief executive of the Monterey Fish Market, which supplies up to five million pounds of fish a year to 150 regional restaurants, including Chez Panisse and the Googleplex in Mountain View.
“In the fall when crab season comes around, and the boilers are steaming and all the guys are coming around with the fresh crabs, it just makes you sad to realize that this is the last major fishery we have left,” he said.
The decline and fall of California’s fisheries is an intricate tale. Eighteenth-century Pacific Coast explorers described a paradise teeming with life. “No country is more abundant in fish and game of every description,” said the French naval officer Jean-François de Galaup, who mapped the Pacific Coast in 1786. Two centuries of robust harvests followed, with occasional off-years.
Now off-years are the norm. Still, the drop in local harvests doesn’t precisely reflect the decline of fish in the sea. The confluence of expanding global markets and more assertive local controls has produced dramatic change. One fishery after another petered out in the wild, and regulators curtailed fishing to preserve species. As with other environmental problems, every person with a stake in the Bay Area’s seafood decline has a villain of choice.
Salmon fishermen tend to blame the decline on inland water users, like farms and developers, who, they say, diverted water needed for spawning new generations of fish. Scientists suggest that a warming ocean has put the fishes’ food supply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others blame mismanagement. Similar finger-pointing is evident around other wounded fisheries.
Wild abalone was one of the first local seafoods to vanish, after state officials closed depleted fisheries in 1996. In 2002, trawling for rockfish — the bottom-dweller often called “red snapper” and used in the spicy stew cioppino — was barred on much of the Pacific Coast. In the past two years, fishing bans multiplied as salmon and herring grew scarce.
In all cases, the regulators responded to evidence of sharp declines in local species. But many local fishermen, who have sustained staggering economic losses, feel the actions of state and federal officials have been excessive.
“In California, we have the least exploited fisheries in the world, but the toughest regulations,” complained Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. At the Monterey Fish Market, Mr. Johnson’s 30-year career has spanned the most dramatic downward shift in local supply. When he began, he said, he was importing only about 30 percent of his fish from outside of California. Now, he said, the figure is closer to 80 percent.
While industry insiders are all too aware of the change in Bay Area menus, diners may have been slow to grasp it. “People still don’t get it,” said George Leonard, a marine biologist at the Santa Cruz office of the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization.
“Restaurants will go to great lengths to make it seem like the fish is local,” he said. “They’ll advertise the ‘fresh catch of the day,’ and half the time, it’s farmed fish from halfway around the world.”
The illusion of fresh local fish became harder to maintain after a 2005 law obliged vendors to label wares by country of origin. This has combined with the trend to advertise the pedigree of foods, like the “Bolinas black cod” at Chez Panisse.
CleanFish, a San Francisco-based supplier of “sustainable seafood,” boasts its wild and “sustainably farmed” fish, like the “Carolina Mahi-Mahi” and the Loch Duarte salmon featured at Tadich Grill. Yet its use of air-shipped and farmed fish rankles some environmentalists. “When you put fresh fish in an airplane,” Mr. Leonard said, “all bets are off,”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium includes all farmed fish on its “red list” of fish to be avoided, citing concerns like the discharge of waste and parasites from farms. The founder of CleanFish, Tim O’Shea, said this ignored differences among the farmers.
A few chefs, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, vigorously advocate serving local seafood whenever possible — “We collected our own mussels from a legal zone recently. Divine!” Ms. Waters recounted in an e-mail message. Still, she occasionally resorts to “sustainable” shrimp from New Orleans.
While the globalization of fish may seem unstoppable, some dream of San Francisco seafood’s resurgence. Mr. Johnson of the Monterey Fish Market foresaw encouraging trends over the next few years, if federal strictures help rebuild rockfish populations.
Recently, environmental advocates took heart in the state’s decision in August to protect 155 square miles of ocean, permanently banning professional fishing in reserves covering 11 percent of California coastal waters.
The decision, to take effect early next year, has prompted complaints from struggling fishermen, yet it is meant to preserve habitat crucial in rebuilding species like rockfish and abalone.
“We can no longer treat the ocean and its fish and wildlife as an all-you-can eat buffet,” said Kaitilin Gaffney, the Pacific ecosystem program director for the Ocean Conservancy. “But the ocean is pretty resilient. If we allow nature to restore herself, she will.”