At the breakwater bordering a yacht club in San Francisco’s Marina, Kirk Lombard is carefully balancing on two algae-covered rocks. He’s holding a homemade bamboo fishing pole, poking and wiggling it into rocky crevices. A crowd of people watch nearby, anxious to see if he will get a bite.
Lombard is fishing, or technically poke-polling, for monkeyface eel. He calls himself a sea forager, and every other week offers this walking and fishing tour: a two-hour lesson on how to catch your own seafood from the Bay’s urban waters.
“It’s where I sort of re-introduce people to the intertidal zone and all of the lovely, delicious, and interesting things that live in it,” Lombard says.
On the tour, Lombard teaches his audience how to catch crabs, how to fillet a fish, how and when to pick mussels off wooden piers and walls at low tide, where to find edible strands of seaweed, and of course, how to poke-poll for monkeyface eel.
Lombard finally gets a bite, and quickly yanks his pole out of the water. He dumps the eel in a big green fishing net and brings it over to his audience. The eel is ugly. It’s four feet long, black and slimy, with bulging eyes and a bloated nose, but Lombard says it will be delicious. Some professional chefs in the Bay Area serve these guys in their restaurants, but you’re not going to see them at the fish counter in Safeway, or on most menus.
The Problem with American Seafood Habits
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the top research institutions for ocean conservation, the commercial fishery of monkeyface eels is basically nonexistent. Part of Lombard’s motivation for these tours is to develop the market for uncommon and underutilized fish, and to combat the extinction of others. He says a lot of it has to do with just changing people’s preconceived notions about which fish are tasty and edible. It wasn’t too long ago that people thought shrimp were gross little sea bugs with lots of arms and googly eyes.
“Pretty much anywhere other than North America, people have been open to eating smaller fish for centuries. Here, it’s not really part of the culture. Smaller fish tend to be the ones that actually taste like a fish. The mainstream consumer in America wants a fish that doesn’t taste like anything,” Lombard says.
The problem, he says, is that Americans eat too much of the most popular types of fish -- like salmon, tuna and halibut. These species are being overfished in the ocean, but there’s another issue: almost half the fish we eat are raised in farms, and because our favorites are high on the food chain, we are fishing other species just to feed them.
“It would be like agriculture not based on cows and pigs but based on lions and tigers and bears,” says Larry Crowder, director of the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey Bay and a professor of marine biology at the Hopkins Marine Station.
He studies what Kirk Lombard practices: how to conserve our fish population. Crowder says eating seafood like shrimp, halibut, sea bass or red snapper is also risky. These species are fished by using large nets and trawling them along the bottom of the ocean floor, which can create what’s called “bycatch,” when fisherman inadvertently catch things they’re not trying to catch.
According to a study released this spring by the National Marine Fisheries Service and environmental group Oceana, US commercial fisherman throw overboard up to 2 billion pounds of bycatch annually, a big portion of which is edible.
“It costs so much to go fishing for fuel, so if things are really low in value, they might just dump them over dead because they’re not worth bringing back, and they would rather fill their holds with things that are more valuable,” Crowder says.
He also says that fishing regulations are partly to blame for all this wasted seafood. Fishermen who have permits to catch certain species are actually required to throw back all other valuable species they accidently bring up from other trophic levels, or food chains.
“A lot of people argue that it’s better to fish a diversity of different fish from a diversity of different trophic levels in the ocean rather than concentrating on one thing. Some of the management is making fishermen into specialists, when historically they made a living by fishing the variants and fishing different species at different times.”
Crowder says that’s how it’s done in developing countries.
“You don’t fish one thing, you fish a portfolio of things. In Mexico you fish for pesos and whatever you can get a good price for, but if those valuable things aren’t available, there are other things to fall back on.”
Fish forager Kirk Lombard has multiple things to fall back on. He’s not just a tour guide and a fisherman; he also runs a community-supported fishery where he helps others find a market for their catch.
Through the fishery Lombard promotes eating local seafood many have never heard of -- things like jack smelt, top smelt, surf smelt, monkeyface eel, herring, and anchovies. Lombard says he favors the smaller fish for a few reasons.
“Smaller fish are lower on the food chain, so they have less bioaccumulation of toxins. They also are shorter-lived, so they don’t have enough time to generate toxic loads inside their bodies.”
They’re also resilient, so it’s harder to overfish them.
“Everything wants to eat those little fish, so they have to be able to bounce back from predation.”
Educating Better Consumers
On his tours, Lombard teaches people how to catch these small fish using Hawaiian casting nets. He says they’re perfect for nabbing pods of shimmery silver herring, something few people on the tour, myself included, knew existed in the San Francisco Bay.
The truth is, Lombard doesn’t expect many people will actually become urban fishermen right after they take his tour. He does hope they’ll become better seafood consumers, and try things that are local and in season.
“Part of the problem is when people demand or expect a certain thing regardless of what month it is. So for instance, you’re not going to get a local salmon in January. In fact you’re going to be hard-pressed to get anything other than a dungeness crab and a herring in January in this area.”
Fishermen themselves know this the best, he says. So it’s important to embrace the independent seafood markets in our backyard, like Fisherman’s Wharf or any of the docks around San Francisco.
“This is right in the middle of our city. Right on the edge of our city, we have this incredible thing, this Pier 45. All these trucks going back and forth, crab pots everywhere, there’s herring nets, gill nets over here ... This is still a thriving fisherman’s wharf,” Lombard says.
It’s a wharf where you can buy local seafood, or just catch it yourself.
This story originally aired in November of 2014.