Politics of Taste: A Fishy Dilemma
After having worked in the Bay Area as a chef for more than 10 years, I have seen my fill of amazingly diverse produce from the local basin, and luxury products from the farthest reaches of the world. But when it comes to the subject of fish, particularly considering that San Francisco is built on an expansive seven square miles peninsula that snuggles into the open Pacific Ocean as if placed there by some divine act of providence, the selection available to us in the food industry has always been something of a curious conflict of faded potential and untapped possibility. Getting great selections of local fish here should be easy in the Bay Area, right? The answer is no, and the root of this issue is more complex than one might think. The issue revolves around two drivers - taste and politics.
Within my own restaurant, we operated as most restaurants do in this field, which is a dependence on a network of trusted distributors who act as the buyers and middlemen for the expansive world of fish and seafood - truly an international industry. Price lists of available fresh fish are updated weekly, if not daily, from our purveyors, with a decent spread of local fish, maybe 15 percent of the offerings, and the rest if the list filled up with common fish and shellfish sourced farther afield on the West coast, the Northeast, and increasingly, from international waters and from aquaculture farms.
As a chef who only wants the finest offering for his guests, I understand the importance of the logistics and importation of fresh seafood. The market demands it, and in some cases, you really can’t do without it. Lobsters and scallops, both abundant in the Northeast, can only be found in the wild at limited quantities on the West coast, and farmed shrimp from the South or the international, though not a 1-1 switch out, is a ready and economical substitute for the most luxurious of seasonal local fisheries, the Spot prawn. But when we consider the vast wealth of resources in our local waters just off the coast of California collectively, the availability ratios of local fish to national/international fish, just don’t seem to add up.
Taste and trend have shaped the fish industry more poignantly than perhaps any other factor. Food trends, albeit ones that are based on national food traditions that are here to stay, like sushi, poke, lobster rolls, shrimp toast, or even such philosophical points of view like the pescatarian diet, dictate what the fish distributor will source and buy. This shift in market buying habits has happened over the last 30 years, as these trends have become entrenched, and reinforced by the distribution channels sourcing fish from all over the world, to the detriment of the local markets.
At this point, in the Bay Area of 2022, there are only a handful of “local” fish that we recognize as staples on our menus, including halibut, black cod, rock cod, and dungeness crab and king salmon when in season. But there is so much more out there. Most of the abundant and less fished species, like pacific skate, petrale sole, starry flounder, ling cod, surf perch, anchovies, monkeyface prickleback, and white crockers, to name a few, are not fished by commercial fisherman because there is no outlet for them to sell these fish. The market demands tuna, salmon, and black cod, and if you are not fishing those items in California, you are likely not fishing at all. And so, this is one reason port towns all along the coast of CA, including San Francisco, have diminished to a ghostly shell of their former legacy.
As a restaurant increasingly concerned with the traceability of our product and it provenance (ie. favoring the local over the international), I took it as a personal mission to get out to the port towns in the Bay Area to meet some of the local fishermen to talk shop. If possible, I was going to source what we could get directly from these fishermen, and find out in the process why certain species of local fish were not showing up to our distributors. Many of the fishermen I was lucky enough to speak with, and many of whom I currently work with directly in sourcing for the restaurant, are holders of single or limited quantity state issued permits for specific kinds of fishery. These fishermen, for example, are highly regulated by the permits that they hold, to fish for single species of fish or shellfish, and nothing else. Depending upon how they fish (also regulated, ie. hook and line, drag net, pot/cage fishing, etc.) they are not allowed to bring in bycatch for sale or personal consumption, even if these fish will otherwise perish after being brought up from the deep, or they will be penalized with a fine and in some cased fishermen are required to have a state paid “observer” on the boat to maintain ethical or legal fishing practice. Additionally, as if to add insult to injury, the state of California has a limited amount or commercial permits for all fishery types, some of which are very expensive (up to a couple of hundred thousand for squid, crab, and spot prawns), and these permits do not increase in number based on demand for them. Permits can be purchased or transfered to other fishermen, but the process can take years (literally), and well funded non-governmental environmental protection groups have in some cases outbid local fisherman on permits with the intention of putting these permits to bed.
Just when you thought this story could not get any worse, it gets worse. Some years ago, in an act to protect important offshore fisheries and marine life along the California coast, the Federal government and the state of California engaged in a huge scientific study to establish what sections of the ocean should be protected from commercial fishery. These scientists engaged the help of longtime fishermen in port town all along the coast, using their expertise to identify the most productive and valued areas. Not unironically, when the study was finished, many of the best fishing spots in the state ended up under both federal and state protection, limiting the productive capacity of local fisherman statewide. Many went bankrupt, selling their boats, permits, and livelihood. And so now, those that remain, are severly handicapped, watched like hawks by governmental agencies like the Department of Fish and Game or Federal drones, and they can only bring in target fish species predicated on their holding of certain expensive and limited permits. Yikes. So much for the dream of abundant and diverse local fish. For that, we have go to the international markets, less regulated, unethical, non-traceable, and brought in by plan over vast distances leaving a carbon footprint that is not unnegligable.
What is the overall message of this story. It boils down to this. In an effort to protect local resources from an overbearing consumer market, we have played to the international at the cost of our local industry. Fishing in California has become costly and dangerous, and we will find ourselves with a glut in the market with few left with the expertise to fish correctly because politics has decided that this artisan field was not worth saving. What we are overlooking is that the ocean is a giant pool, and we are all connected to it. You cannot protect one part this liquid resource, while pillaging the rest.