Archive for the Uncategorized Category

Jun 5 2017

Flashback, Phil Bowhay: A fish story, with calamari on the side

(Vern Fisher – Monterey Herald file)


Back in the good old days we fished for food and fun, and had plenty of both. During World War II, when most good things to eat were rationed, we did just fine with clams, abalone and crab. Our Monterey friends fed the world with sardines, squid, and anchovies, and anything else scooped from the ocean with those beautiful purse seiners. First, second or third generation from the “old country,” they were born knowing how to fish.

What a treat now to talk to some of the old timers that worked all the way from the Bering Sea to Central America. No wonder King Crab is so expensive.

They mended their nets on Wharf 1 and 2, but mostly on Fisherman’s Flat across from Tarpy’s. Back then it was Cadematori’s, and Cadematori’s used to be on Pacific Street, but that’s another story.

You don’t have to scratch very deep to find a Billeci, Lucido, Ferante. Anastasi, Aliotio or a dozen others to tell you stories about themselves or their folks. It helps if their name ends in a vowel. One very good thing is that knowing how to cook has been passed down and happily shared. Try Favaloro’s in Pacific Grove. I’m an expert on calamari and theirs is the best on the Peninsula.

There was always a kid or two in Pacific Grove walking down to Lovers Point, a beat up rod in one hand and gunny sack in the other. (These burlap bags were passed along from father to son. They smelled of old fish and were kept outside.)

At the P.G. pier we would rent a skiff from Sprague, complete with a big granite rock anchor, and a piece of wood for cutting bait, all for four bits. Row out a half mile or so, lines in the water, and usually wind up with a sack of sand dabs. If we drifted over a rocky bottom, maybe a lingcod. Then sometimes a sliver smelt, and even a salmon!

Great sport off Wharf 2 when the mackerel were running. Didn’t even have bait the hook. We didn’t really appreciate mackerel in those days and one fish per rose bush worked out just right. Since then, with fewer mackerel around, we find they are delicious. Olive oil, garlic and tomato sauce.

And then there’s time Dad went out with Tom and a couple of other guys, hoping for salmon. Caught a big shark instead. Good luck since there was a big demand for shark liver. This shark was unhappy with the situation and knocked Tom on his butt.

Dad, for some unknown reason, had a pistol with him, and shot the shark in the head. This further upset the shark which then, still thrashing, puked. Further description unnecessary, but with some difficulty, shark over the side, liver be damned. Further enhancing the experience was the bullet hole in the bottom of the boat. Some days are like that.

And one more thing, the calamari at the Beach House, perfect. Then there’s Marty’s Special at Abalonettis …

“Good grief,” they shout, “Stop him!”

Mar 7 2017

Fish, Nature’s super food

Dec 5 2016

Local harbor seal population appears down, but should rebound

Harbor seals haul out of the water at the beach at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove on Wednesday. (David Royal - Monterey Herald)

Harbor seals haul out of the water at the beach at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove on Wednesday. (David Royal – Monterey Herald)

Pacific Grove >> The stretch of coastline from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey along the rocky shores of Pacific Grove to Pebble Beach is home to a shrinking population of Pacific harbor seals, local experts said.

According to a population census taken on Nov. 25 by husband and wife Thom and Kim Akeman, volunteers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s shoreline program Bay Net, the Pacific Grove Harbor seal population has declined by one-third. Numbers have plunged from about 700 individuals, based on preliminary counts taken by Monterey Bay Aquarium researcher Teri Nicholson in the 1990s, to fewer than 500 in the last couple of years, the Akemans reported. Uncharacteristically warm waters, which depleted the marine environment of oxygen and food, are to blame, they added.

But the bad news may not be as critical as it seems, said Dr. Andrew DeVogelaere, research director at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“A lot of ocean species have evolved to have a few bad years,” he said. “The population will dip down, and then with more food, go up again.”

The normally cool water off the Central Coast is an oxygen-filled, nutrient-rich haven for all local marine life, from tiny anchovies to magnanimous humpback whales. But 2014’s mild winter made for uncharacteristically warm waters. Because of El Niño, the sea is still above its normal temperature today. The National Marine Fisheries Service, whose scientists have 35 years of oceanic climate data from California, have never seen years like the last few, DeVogelaere said.

The Monterey Bay’s lack of resources can be hard to take note of. Whale-watching companies are celebrating a heyday. Last year, naturalists and tourists watched cetaceans swarm like never before. But whales form large congregations because of the scarcity of food, DeVogelaere said, and they’re forced to converge in the few nutrient-rich locations where they can find a meal.

The changing conditions offshore undoubtedly affect harbor seals, he added.

The harbor seal may be a distant cousin to the adventurous California sea lion and elephant seal, but it’s an entirely different animal. Harbor seals are incredibly loyal to their rocky homes, straying a mere mile or two to swim and feed. If warming coastal waters kill off their food supply, they’ll likely starve.

Mother harbor seals are taking an additional hit. During the pupping season last spring, “lots of the moms didn’t have enough milk and had to abandon pups on the beach,” said Thom Akeman, who has been watching his flippered neighbors sleep and romp along the Pacific Grove shores for 13 years.

Two years ago, female seals weaned 90 healthy pups at Hopkins Marine Station, the largest harbor seal rookery in Pacific Grove. This year, the colony had only 30 pups, many of which were born to mothers too malnourished to rear them.

During Bay Net’s Pacific Grove harbor seal census on Nov. 25, Akeman saw only nine baby seals at Hopkins. He suspects these are the last remaining pups in the colony.

The Pacific Grove harbor seal population is expected to recover, but scientists are unsure how long it will take. Their comeback depends on ocean temperatures cooling, and staying cool for a prolonged time, allowing the food web to prosper once again. But no one can say when, or if, the temperatures will stay low enough for this to happen, said Akeman and DeVogelaere.

The unpredictable effects of global climate change make it a guessing game.

“We’re in an uncontrolled experiment. We’re changing the atmosphere of the world and the chemistry of the oceans. No one has done this experiment before, so we’re really rolling the dice,” DeVogelaere said.

Fortunately for Pacific harbor seals, the local population decline is an isolated oddity. Throughout California, Oregon and Washington, the population is steadily rising. California is home to about 31,000 harbor seals, and many colonies in the Monterey Bay are stable or thriving.

The next Pacific Grove harbor seal count, conducted by the Akemans, is scheduled for late March, when the pupping season begins. The couple, who just began tallying the seals this year, now plan to count them three times a year — in the early spring, summer and fall. They’ll report their findings to NOAA and fellow Bay Net docents through emails and the general public with Facebook.

Teaching others about the environment and the ways to respect wildlife, which Bay Net docents aim to do, is important, DeVogelaere said. And environmental issues and awareness should be given the prominence and attention they deserve, he added.

“I wish people would care about them more,” DeVogelaere said. “They might be affecting the world for their children and their children’s children … But I think in general, people want to do the right thing, if they know what the right thing is. Education is the way to go.”

People look at a harbor seal haul at the beach at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove on Wednesday. (David Royal - Monterey Herald)People look at a harbor seal haul at the beach at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove on Wednesday. (David Royal – Monterey Herald)

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Dec 1 2016

In California, Squid Is Big Business. But Good Luck Eating Local Calamari

A squid salad in Los Angeles. In California, squid is an economic driver of the seafood industry. Bit most of this squid is frozen and exported overseas to China to be processed and distributed across the globe.

A squid salad in Los Angeles. In California, squid is an economic driver of the seafood industry. Bit most of this squid is frozen and exported overseas to China to be processed and distributed across the globe. (Rick Loomis/LA Times via Getty Images)

More than 80 percent of U.S. squid landings are exported — most of it to China. The rare percentage of that catch that stays domestically goes to Asian fresh fish markets or is used as bait.

Ironically, the lion’s share of the squid consumed in the United States is imported.

“Squid is a labor-intensive product,” says Emily Tripp, founder of Marine Science Today, a website on the latest ocean-based research. “It’s cheaper in some situations to ship it to China to be processed and ship it back.”

Tripp, who recently graduated with a masters from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, did her thesis project on California market squid, which, during non-El Niño years, is California’s most valuable fishery.

In California, squid is an economic driver of the seafood industry – it’s the fifth-largest fishery in the United States by weight. Yet most of this squid is frozen and exported overseas to China to be processed and distributed to over 42 countries across the globe. It’s an export market that, according to 2011 figures, is valued at $107 million. Only 1.4 percent of it, on average, makes it back to the U.S. In 2015, that figure was 0.46 percent.

“It has to do with the American desire for a larger squid,” explains Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association. “A lot of squid that is shipped overseas stays overseas because they prefer it. They eat it over there. Our consumers typically prefer a larger squid, and so there’s just a ton of squid imported into this country that comes in at a far lower price.”

In the U.S., the squid that ends up on our dinner table is typically Patagonian squid from the Falkland Islands or Humboldt squid — a jumbo cephalopod fished predominantly in Mexico and Peru.

California market squid isn’t usually desired because of its smaller size.

“Our squid is a learning curve,” Pleschner-Steele says. “If you overcook it, it can taste like a rubber band. But in my opinion, if you do it right, it tastes more like abalone than any other squid. It’s nutty, sweet and delicate.”

The cost of labor is another, perhaps more significant, factor. Squid cleaning and processing is an extremely time-consuming practice. The eyes, cartilage, skin and guts need to be removed ahead of time, and it’s cheaper to have this done overseas than domestically.

A round-trip freight cost to China is $0.10 per pound and labor is just $7 a day there. By contrast, California wages — with tax and health insurance — amount to $12 an hour, according to Pleschner-Steele.

Also, supply chains and markets are incredibly opaque. Pleschner-Steele suspects that as the Chinese middle-class economy has blossomed, a lot of the squid processing facilities are now based in Thailand.

Tripp says during her research, it was nearly impossible to track down where exactly the squid was being processed abroad.

“The biggest challenge was trying to find out where the squid goes when it leaves to the United States,” she says. “No one wants to say where they partner. It’s a bit of a challenge. In the United States we keep such good records of all of our fish and seafood. There’s no comparable system in China. I couldn’t follow the chain backwards.”

Regardless, the narrative is the same: Californians aren’t eating Californian squid. And if they are, it likely wasn’t processed in California.

At Mitch’s Seafood, a restaurant in San Diego committed to local fish, the owners spent three years looking for a California-based squid processor for their calamari. They eventually found a company in San Pedro called Tri-Marine.

“We have to pay twice as much for it, but it’s worth it so that we can say we offer California-caught and processed squid,” owner Mitch Conniff says. “Squid that’s caught two to three miles away takes a 10,000-mile round-trip journey before I can get it back into my restaurant.”

All Californian fish processors are capable of dealing with squid, Pleschner-Steele says. However, it’s not a money-making operation because people aren’t willing to pay for it.

“It has to be on request,” she says. “We simply can’t compete with the cost of other imported squid. ”

Supporting the local squid industry is much more than just helping the local economy – it’s helpful from a sustainability angle as well.

Even with squid being sent on a round-trip journey across the world, the California market squid fishery has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the industry.

“California squid fishing fleets are one of the most energy efficient in the world because [they’re] so close to port,” Pleschner-Steele says. “Our boats can produce a ton of proteins for about six gallons of diesel fuel. … Efficiency is key.”

Further efficiency, she says, could be achieved if consumers would be keen to fork over $1.50 a pound more for California-caught and processed squid.

But the “truth is that Americans aren’t willing to pay for it,” she says. “If people were willing to pay the price, we can definitely feed the demand.”

Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and Taipei. She writes about sustainability and food.

Copyright 2016 NPR.

Nov 1 2016

Biased Tide Gauges Mean We’ve Been Systematically Underestimating Sea Level Rise

An early 20th-century tide gauge in Venice, Italy. Photo by Stock Italia/Alamy Stock Photo

Most historical tide gauges were installed in the northern hemisphere, a legacy that has been skewing scientists’ modern interpretations of sea level rise. 


In harbors and ports around the world, tide gauges bob up and down with the sea, recording its height over time. In some places, these instruments—through various iterations—have been recording continuously since 1700. Originally installed to help fishing and merchant vessels plan when to enter and leave harbors, the data produced by these old-school gauges has been co-opted by scientists, and now forms the basis of climatologists’ understanding of long-term sea level rise. But as a new study shows, because the majority of these tide gauges were located in North Atlantic port cities, scientists have been systematically underestimating the rate of global sea level rise.

“The gauges are concentrated in the northern hemisphere, in Europe and North America, where traditionally we’ve had a lot of shipping and commerce,” says Phil Thompson, an oceanographer at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. “That’s contributing to why we don’t get really good spatial coverage over the globe.”

Sea level rise is not occurring evenly across the planet. Tides, currents, and weather systems constantly alter sea levels, while tectonic forces move the land. Changes in Earth’s gravity and rotation also affect sea level, and melting ice caps cause a host of complex effects.

The northern hemispheric concentration of historical tide gauges caused researchers to misrepresent the effects of melting glaciers on global sea level rise. Photo by EyeEm/Alamy Stock Photo

The result of this northern hemispheric concentration in tide gauges, then, is that long-term records have provided data that has led scientists to underestimate the rate of 20th-century sea level rise by as much as 0.2 millimeters per year, says Thompson. This is a fairly large amount, as the average rate of sea level rise over the past century is thought to be around 1.7 millimeters per year.

People have measured the rise and fall of the tides for millennia. In the 3rd-century BCE, Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia reportedly took note of the tides of Great Britain, and he was the first to notice a correlation between tides and the Moon. But the oldest tide gauge records still in existence date from the 18th century, and are centered in the port cities of Europe and North America. The oldest tide gauges were simple structures, consisting of a long metal tube with an opening under the water which minimized the effects of waves or passing ships. At regular intervals, an observer would record the water level relative to a fixed point on the land.

In the United States, the government started surveying coastlines in 1807, at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, who saw the measurements as valuable for exploration, commerce, and safety. According to the US Congress, accurate charts of the coastline and tides would help naval forces and merchants alike.

In 1851, the US Coast and National Geodetic Survey installed the first self-recording gauge in San Francisco. It contained a pen resting on a scroll that rotated at a constant rate, and when the pen moved up and down with the tides, it traced a graph of water levels.

Over time more tide gauges were installed, and these long-running records became vital to science in a way Jefferson would never have anticipated, says John Fasullo, a sea level rise expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

“You have this problem a lot in climate science,” Fasullo says. “You have some record that exists that was installed with a different intent, and then it’s the only data you have for understanding climate, so you use it any way you can.

“The kind of work [Thompson] is doing is very important for understanding the biases in this data set, which was never designed originally to monitor global mean sea level.”

Specifically, the main source of bias that Thompson found stems from how ice sheets affect regional sea level.

Ice is heavy, so enormous sheets create a subtle gravitational pull, and affect the Earth’s rotation. The result is that ice sheets attract water toward themselves. As these ice sheets melt into the sea, this gravitational pull relaxes. Water slowly moves away from them, and is redistributed toward areas with stronger gravitational pulls, explains Fasullo. Initially, cities near the site of melting ice might see localized sea level rise, but over time they will experience less.

This redistribution of water means tide gauge records of average sea levels in northern hemisphere cities are artificially low, because the northern hemisphere’s ice sheets are thought to be the largest sources of melt. Since tide gauges were predominantly installed in northern hemisphere cities, this is the source of the systemic bias.

The result adds to a growing body of research that suggests the sea level can change dramatically over shorter time periods than expected, says geoscientist Ben Horton of Rutgers University, who measures past sea levels using core samples. He says the result suggests climate models might not be calibrated correctly, which raises questions about their predictions for future sea level rise.

“This is not a feel-good moment. Showing that it is rising faster is not a good answer,” he says. “That indicates that our oceans are even more sensitive to climate change than we previously thought.”

The good news is, now that scientists are aware of this source of bias, they can take it into account in future climate models, Thompson says. The bad news is sea level rise may be happening more quickly than scientists thought.

Read the original article: Rebecca Boyle, “Biased Tide Gauges Mean We’ve Been Systematically Underestimating Sea Level Rise,” Hakai Magazine, November 1, 2016, accessed November 1, 2016,

Oct 27 2016

In the shadow of Seaport

After three hours and three unsuccessful trips to reputable yet barren fishing spots near the mouth of San Diego Bay, Phil Harris had finally nabbed a worthwhile bite. Now his line — wiggling with potential sales — was stuck on the ocean floor, 300 feet straight down.

“Hooked on the bottom,” Harris said. “God dammit.”

At 75, Harris deftly maneuvered between the throttle and his fishing pole, trying every which way to free up the line. Forward. Reverse. Curse. Repeat.

Ten minutes later, he dislodged the hook and welcomed aboard the Sea Nag one dead rockfish, its eyes and stomach bulging from the decompression accompanying such a rapid ascent. The line’s lead weight, lost to the deep, was worth about the same price as the fish would be at Saturday’s market. Harris replaced the lead weight with a scrap-iron chain, drove to a new location, dropped the line again, and pulled it up.

“One little dab,” he said, looking at the small, flounder-like fish that was once a staple in San Diego. Then, he noticed he had lost the chain weight — the final straw.

“I can’t hit my ass with both hands today,” he said.

There are no metaphors here: The boat isn’t life, the fish aren’t dreams and no deep truths lie hidden among the worn creases and fresh scars on Harris’ hands. His voice, a blend of sea salt and gargled pebbles, isn’t a reflection on the primal nature of man. He’s just a fisherman, having a rough day, and will try again tomorrow.

It’s the tomorrow that holds all the meaning.

In the city once hailed as the Tuna Capital of the World, Harris and roughly 150 other local commercial fishermen have seen their numbers dwindle against ever constricting catch laws and the crush of foreign competition. Today, in a turnaround, this aging generation finds itself in a position of power: Able to make or break a billion-dollar development proposal called Seaport that seeks to radically redefine San Diego’s waterfront.

“There’s a 50-50 chance that we could kill it,” Harris said.

But killing it won’t solve their problems.

Like every real-life situation, the fishermen’s tale is not black and white. Reality is a complicated web of not just one developer’s vision, but a port’s priorities, state and federal restrictions, generations of family drama, international competition, and a somewhat-sordid history of waterfront development in America’s Finest City.

Ironically, one of their biggest hurdles lies in what drove fishermen to the water in the first place — a yearning for solitude and independence, and an aversion to working together.

“Most fishermen didn’t go into fishing because they wanted to work with others,” an industry consultant told inewsource.

History hasn’t always been kind to the men and women whose livelihoods depend on what lies beneath San Diego waters, and what happens next is anyone’s guess. But it’s safe to say that today is a critical juncture.

Peter Halmay, a veteran sea urchin diver and president of the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group, has an optimistic side.

“There’s a fantastic future coming up and it shouldn’t be disregarded. You shouldn’t allow old fishermen to say, ‘Ahh the best days are over.’ They’re not over! They’re way ahead of us.”

“The fish are there, and the demand is there,” local fisherman John Law added, then paused.

“It’s a question of whether we’re still going to be here.”


Yehudi Gaffen’s nightmares are different from yours.

In a recent dream, the South African expat discovered an earthquake fault running through 40 acres of land in downtown San Diego — the land he and partners Jeff Jacobs and Jeff Essakow hope to transform into “one of the most hotly anticipated destination waterfront sites in the nation.” A game-changing fault could sink Seaport before it even begins.

But he’s getting ahead of himself.

At a public meeting one month prior, Gaffen and his partners had leap-frogged over five competitors to steer a future for this section of the waterfront called the Central Embarcadero, long home to a quaint cluster of shops and restaurants and a marina known respectively as Seaport Village and Tuna Harbor.

Gaffen’s vision would replace most of what stands today at the Central Embarcadero with parks, an aquarium, retail space, a charter school, a 480-foot spire, thousands of underground parking spaces, two hotels and a hostel.  It’s estimated to cost more than $1.2 billion.

Port Commissioner Bob Nelson called the plan “breathtaking.”

“We would have never been that imaginative,” Nelson said of Seaport. “None of us have that talent.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Seaport is projecting to earn the port more than $20 million a year — seven times what the current leaseholders pay.

The plan would keep intact Tuna Harbor, which is situated between Ruocco Park and the Fish Market restaurant next to the USS Midway. But it would change the focus of the harbor — one of the city’s two commercial fishing marinas on the bay — to mixed use “to create a one-of-a-kind, internationally recognized” destination.

Driscoll’s Wharf, the other commercial marina, is a few miles north of Seaport on the bayfront next to Shelter Island. It is also a part of Gaffen’s plan — yet Driscoll’s current owner told inewsource he has no intention of leaving or selling (a hiccup for Gaffen).

These bayfront lands are hallowed ground in San Diego. For nearly all of the 20th century, they were home to America’s tuna fleet and hundreds of Portuguese, Italian, Japanese and Mexican fishermen who helped settle waterfront neighborhoods such as Point Loma, Barrio Logan and Little Italy.

Nearly a dozen canneries opened between the 1910s and mid-1920s, employing thousands of men and women and earning San Diego a reputation as “The Tuna Capital of the World.” The glut ended some 50 years later when a mix of foreign competition, rising costs and a nascent environmental movement “forced cannery operations to go abroad,” according to historian Richard Crawford. It nearly decimated the fleet.

Today, the marinas service dozens rather than hundreds of commercial fishing boats, while the surrounding land hosts hotels and tourist attractions.

“Our working waterfronts are undersung heroes of the national economic landscape,” said Henry Pontarelli, vice president and co-owner of Lisa Wise Consulting, an economics and urban planning firm with a focus on commercial fishing communities. “There’s a lot of value and people don’t know about it.”

Who knew that California ports offloaded more than 350 million pounds of fish in 2014? That the state’s living resources sector accounted for nearly $340 million in 2013 gross domestic product — and that same sector, that same year, accounted for $2.4 trillion in wages across all coastal states?

And who knew those numbers are tiny compared to what they were 20, 30 and 40 years ago?

The point being: There’s a lot of money and a lot at stake when it comes to fish, and San Diego’s past and future economies are tied into all of that.

“The fishing side of this is very much part of the ethos of our project,” Gaffen said in August, seated at a picnic table along the base of Seaport’s future “Spire” — a 44-story tall observation tower, restaurant and gift shop.

“People love to see fish processing, they love to see boats coming in with fish being off loaded. It’s theater, it’s a spectacle,” he said. “It makes the site different from any other site.”

The Seaport project is slated for a green light at next month’s public meeting of the Port of San Diego, a powerful agency that’s intricately involved in everything waterfront related in town.

Led by a board of appointed commissioners representing five waterfront cities — Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, National City, Coronado and San Diego — the port is responsible for managing thousands of acres around the bay. But unlike most public agencies, the port isn’t funded by taxpayers. Instead, it earns revenue mainly through leases: Around 600 tenants are projected to pay the port more than $94 million this year. But the land occupied by these hotels, bars, marinas and other — mainly maritime-based — companies is in fact owned by the public. The land is “held in trust” by the port for the people.

Though for some reason, Harris said aboard his half-century-old boat, “the people of San Diego don’t realize that they own the port.”

In an ideal world, all the port’s actions are guided by its master plan, a document that sets out development guidelines and core principles — though that hasn’t always been the case.

In fact, Gaffen’s main construction management firm, Gafcon, was the project manager in the early 2000s for the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan. That redevelopment covered more than a mile’s worth of bayfront property, just north of the Central Embarcadero between the USS Midway and the San Diego International Airport.

As inewsource recently documented, powerful interests ended up shaping that plan into something so divorced from its original vision that it drew three lawsuits and several reprimands from the California Coastal Commission, a state agency with some control over the port’s actions.

Now, instead of a promised 10-acre park along the North Embarcadero, there are hotels. Instead of a public park on Navy Pier, there is a parking lot. Instead of a public park on Broadway Pier, there’s a lonely $28 million cruise ship terminal that earns the port next to nothing.

To its credit, the port has made several improvements to the North Embarcadero: some shops, an observation deck, landscaping, an esplanade and public restrooms. But the port still owes San Diegans, and the Coastal Commission, acres of public park space as “mitigation” for the major changes.

“I know what a scandal it is,” Harris said about the North Embarcadero in August. “This is shaping up to be the same situation — this development. They’ll say one thing, and come up with a big plan, and then it’ll gradually get changed. It’ll take several years to implement and they’ll have all kinds of reasons for changing it. And the Coastal Commission will go along with it.”

In Ruocco Park, Gaffen spoke with inewsource about his working relationship with, and respect for, commercial fishermen.

“When you think about their work ethic, and the risks they take, and the hard work that they have to put in, it’s pretty amazing,” Gaffen said. “But they’re also a very suspicious group.”

With good reason.

For decades, San Diego’s fishermen have been beset by space reduction, lease violations and false promises from developers and government agencies alike. Gaffen is well aware that Seaport is “dealing with the echoes” of that history, and cited a recent workshop — where he shared preliminary plans with the fishermen’s steering committee — as an example:

“They called one plan HS1,” Gaffen said. “Which is Horseshit 1.”

Harris has been at these meetings. In fact, he’s been involved with waterfront matters as far back as the 1970s when, he said, he first organized a class action lawsuit against the port over commercial fishing space. A lifetime in San Diego has left him suspicious of any government or developer that wants to change the marinas.

“Gaf says he’ll agree to anything, but we’ll see,” he said, then laughed. “Words are cheap.”

Phil Harris

Originally from Point Loma, Harris grew up working construction in the winter and scouring the seafloor in the summer. “I had a reputation for quitting,” he said of his construction jobs, though he stuck with fishing because it never bored him.

His father was a fisherman. His two brothers were fishermen. He once survived a boat wreck harvesting sea snails off Catalina, but you really have to hear him tell it.

It’s clear that despite having spent so much of his life on the water, Harris is acutely aware of how things work on the mainland, and has met with Gaffen several times this year.

“The air won’t be cleared,” Harris said, until the port gives Gaffen “the final OK, and we sit down with him and tell him exactly what we need — and not want.”

Gaffen dismisses the idea that the fishermen and his vision can’t find a balance.

“If it doesn’t work for them, it isn’t going to work for us,” Gaffen said, “and if we can’t create that win-win that they are comfortable with, this project isn’t going to move.”

To the fishermen, it’s as if a contractor showed up at their house offering a remodel, but with grander designs on the whole block. They’re suspicious of any outsider who claims to understand their needs, or their history.

Take Driscoll’s Wharf, for example.


A death in the family

At 9:45 p.m. on June 6, 2013, Holly Vernon kissed her love goodbye, and left for work.

Two hours later, she returned home to find Catherine Driscoll — her life-partner and daughter of yachting legend Gerry Driscoll — unconscious on the bedroom floor, still breathing, with a gunshot wound to her head. As Catherine’s airway filled with blood, Vernon called 911, then ran to a neighbor’s house for help. The two turned Catherine on her side and tried to clear her airway. She died at Scripps Mercy Hospital at 1:10 a.m. The medical examiner ruled it a suicide.

“With many causes, you need a champion,” said Henry Pontarelli of Lisa Wise Consulting. “It’s like a parent with a child — if the kid falls down or gets beat up at school, the parent picks the kid up and keeps it going.”

“Cathy was one of those people,” he said.

Catherine “Cathy” Driscoll was a friend to Pontarelli, Harris, Halmay and many others in the industry as the manager of Driscoll’s Wharf near San Diego’s Shelter Island.

The Driscoll family’s roots trace back to the Mayflower and the founding of the first California mission, according to Tom Driscoll — Cathy’s brother and owner of Driscoll Inc. Each generation, he said, has maintained a relationship with the waterfront in one way or another — whether it was through repairing ships, building boatyards or, in recent history, growing the Driscoll business “from about 50-60 thousand square feet of land and water” to “about a million square feet” at five sites along San Diego Bay and Mission Bay.

Part of that business is managing Driscoll’s Wharf, tucked within America’s Cup Harbor across from Shelter Island.

In 1992, Cathy and Tom’s father, Gerry, saw opportunity in the space, and leased the nine acres of land from the port for the next 31 years.

It hasn’t changed much since.

A state-funded study in 2009 found many aspects of Driscoll’s Wharf inadequate: channel depth, wake management, offloading facility, electricity, water distribution, dock size and conditions, gear, equipment and live fish storage. Talk to the commercial fishermen who use the wharf and they’ll add ice and other complaints to the mix.

“Some of those docks are just not safe,” Gaffen said of Driscoll’s in August, “the handrails are falling off, the buildings — I think if we had a strong wind, would fall down.”

Cathy managed the wharf, meaning she collected rent from the fishermen, listened to their concerns, and lobbied her brother Tom for money to fix up the place. The fishermen loved her, and she loved the fishermen.

“Not saying the commercial fishermen took advantage of that,” Tom told inewsource in October. “They had — not free reign — but certainly control. She was just a different type of style.”

Pontarelli recalled that it was Cathy who loaded fresh fish from the docks into her Lexus for sale at Whole Foods; it was Cathy who worked with a state agency to help fishermen implement direct marketing; it was Cathy who volunteered to serve on steering committees.

She was a champion, according to Pontarelli. A free spirit, according to Harris.

“We had a lot of things going for us,” Harris said of the time. “And Cathy was behind it all.”

Tom said that in 2013, after Gerry Driscoll died, he stepped in at Driscoll’s Wharf to get things “organized.” From all accounts, things quickly went downhill between the siblings.

What allegedly happened next is the stuff of John Grisham novels. inewsource pulled the story together from Harris and Kelly Falk, a former port staffer, two attorneys, police reports and the county Medical Examiner’s Office.

Tom’s presence at the wharf disrupted the longstanding relationship between Cathy and the fishermen. “Tom started putting the screws to Cathy as soon as Gerry was gone,” Harris said.

The tension between the two concerned the future of commercial fishing at Driscoll docks. Tom wanted the fishermen out while Cathy wanted to protect them. Tom told inewsource he simply wanted to clean up the business side and hold fishermen accountable for things like making sure all their boats were insured and that they paid their bills.

Either way, Cathy allegedly began gathering evidence that Tom was keeping two sets of books — “what she said was enough evidence to put Tom in jail,” Harris said — and she handed that evidence over to Kelly Falk, a friend and asset manager in the Port of San Diego’s real estate department, in a box. Falk confirmed all of this.

inewsource asked Tom about the situation in October.

“I knew there was certainly some animosity there,” he said about his late sister. “But this thing about a box, it’s the first I’ve heard of a box.” He denied any improprieties.

Cathy begged Falk to do something about her brother. She faxed him tax returns and called repeatedly. Falk said he relayed the information to attorneys at the port, but was told to steer clear of the whole mess.

A port attorney confirmed to inewsource that he had “heard about” the box, but never saw it. Falk returned the papers and the box to Cathy.

In May, a month before her suicide, Cathy accused her brother of fiscal mismanagement in person. Tom asked her to leave the business. She began seeing a psychologist and resorted to sleep medications, and kept a Bersa Thunder .380 handgun in her desk drawer.

She called Harris a few hours before pulling the trigger.

“She made me promise to keep up the fight,” Harris said. “I thought she was going to leave town or something like that. I didn’t think she was going to kill herself.”

A memorial to Cathy stands at Driscoll’s, her framed photo nestled among foliage. It’s called “Cathy’s Garden.”

The fishermen hold Tom accountable for Cathy’s death, and have railed against his handling of the wharf. Tom, in return, has held them accountable by enforcing lease terms and evicting several long-term residents, like Harris, who said he was tossed for a minor infraction. “The guy threw me out of my hometown,” he said.

In the process, the wharf fell into even worse shape, and in 2014, the fishermen hired a lawyer to petition the port to force Tom to provide them with adequate storage, parking, maintenance, bathrooms, walkways, tanks, floating docks, affordable ice and other facilities.

Tom mostly obliged, but port Commissioner Nelson said it hasn’t been easy.

“We’ve had our rounds in the rodeo with him,” Nelson said. “There’ve been a lot of delays in him fulfilling his obligations for improvements to the property.”

The reality, according to Tom, is more complicated: He’s expected to pour money into things like new docks, an ice machine, or a storage area in a marina that generates very little revenue. “People don’t understand how difficult that is,” he said.

Why, as CEO of a company with thriving businesses all over San Diego, would Tom opt to deal with all the hatred and all the upkeep at the wharf?

“A lot of people ask that, and I think it’s finishing something that you started,” he said while walking the docks with his son in October. “I want to see it through. It’s not a financial… there’s no goldmine at the end of the rainbow.”

But there is a goldmine.

Gaffen, both in words and on paper, has made no secret that he intends to take over Driscoll’s Wharf, either when Tom’s lease expires in 2023 or sooner. Three pages detail his intentions in the Seaport plan: Draft designs show new docks, processing facilities and a small retail fish market.

A comprehensive study from 2010 showed Driscoll’s Wharf needed at least $18 million to revitalize itself as a viable commercial fishing operation. Gaffen said some of that money could come from the more lucrative elements of Seaport, as well as grants and “some sort of public-private joint partnership,” possibly involving the port.

“Tom is in a situation where his lease has got only a few more years to go,” Gaffen said, “so to spend a lot of money without him knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t make sense.”

The fishermen believe Gaffen’s plan would likely be better than anything Tom might do. Tom, said just about everyone interviewed for this story, wants what’s best for Tom.

Not so, Tom says.

“We’re not a developer that comes in and builds something and then sells it and moves on,” he said. “Absolutely we want to extend the lease. We want to put in improvements to help the fishermen and we want to be here for the next generation.”

He walked back and forth along the Driscoll esplanade, talking for more than an hour.

“We like the idea that the Driscoll name is going to carry on with the maritime industry,” he said. “We think that’s important.”

Each lap took him past his sister’s garden.

The urchin diver’s secrets

Still wearing his wetsuit, breathing hard and dripping salt water aboard the Erin B, 76-year-old Pete Halmay used what looked like the world’s rustiest knife to break apart the shell of a sea urchin. He pointed out the gonads, known as uni, a popular dish among sushi lovers, then pulled a hellish contraption from the echinoderm.

“It’s called Aristotle’s Lantern,” Halmay said. A sea urchin mouth.

Growing up, Halmay’s kids didn’t play cowboys and indians. They played diver and processor. Their mother told them to put “sea urchin” into a sentence if they truly wanted their father’s attention; otherwise, dad would drift off. He has been diving since 1970 — right around when the urchin industry emerged in San Diego — through its peak in the ’90s and into today, when the fishery only supports a handful of divers like him. As a result, he’s now focusing on the next generation.

“I used to go to high schools, and say, ‘Uh, do you have any drunks or alcoholics? I’m looking for fishermen,’” he said. “And I’m tired of doing that.”

He hopes that not every young adult is interested in a four-year university program — that instead, some may have a passion for the outdoors and a salty soul.

“We gotta start training, teaching and mentoring the young people, and keep them coming in, otherwise the fishing part is not sustainable,” he said.

He’s working with friends at the University of California San Diego to develop an apprenticeship program, and they recently received a $100,000 grant to get it started.

“If we can institute that program and open up some of these fisheries so that the old guys can step aside and make room for young guys, we’ll have a better fishery,” Halmay said.

But it’s an uphill battle. Secrecy is a way of life for Halmay and his colleagues and sharing insider knowledge — even for the greater good — is a tough sell, he admits. The logbook above his steering wheel is a secret. His collaborative work with scientists to make a little extra money, evidenced by certain tools on board, is a secret. Where he will sell the glistening, crackling catch — and who he sells it to — is sometimes a secret.

Seaport San Diego Peter Halmay

“Fishermen are their own worst enemy,” said Peter Flournoy, a local attorney who has represented fishermen and fishing associations for decades, “in the sense that they are an independent lot and it is very difficult to get them together.”

Pontarelli referred to the same thing as a “fractured voice,” which has evidenced itself in the meetings between Gaffen and the fishermen.

“There’s so many different types of fishermen,” Gaffen said, whether they’re longline or lobster or urchin fishermen, “they all have different opinions on what their needs are.”

“The other challenge is just getting them to work together,” he said.

Yet when they do come together as one voice, the fishermen wield far more power than their numbers would suggest.

“If push comes to shove,” Harris said, “we could align with the opposition to the project and make things so difficult that the Coastal Commission would have no choice but to deny the development permit.”

But, he added, “we don’t want to go that route if Gaf will let us have what we need to keep Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s as a working waterfront.”

Little by little, progress has been made. Harris, Halmay and some of their colleagues are devoting more time away from the water and back “on the beach” — as they call land and civilization — to work with each other and people like Gaffen.

It has paid off:

The first organized fisherman’s market in decades opened at Tuna Harbor two years ago, with Halmay and several others working for a year behind the scenes to get it started. Now, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market sees hundreds of visitors looking to buy crabs, urchin, tuna, shark, octopus, mackerel, halibut, snails and dozens more fresh catches.

One hot July morning, a fisherman who would normally be out to sea spent the day manning a booth, holding out rock crabs for children to touch. Another spent time relaying a secret halibut recipe to eager tourists. It’s an attempt to assign value and spread awareness — “You shouldn’t ask why local fish is so expensive,” Pontarelli said, “You should ask why imported fish is so cheap.”

Halmay spent the morning walking the dock, taking notes. He views the market as a necessary fabric of the embarcadero.

“The beauty is that we put out the fish where people can see it,” Halmay said. “It’s a visual thing. It’s not wrapped in cellophane.”

Though the market is a success in the eyes of the fishermen, it’s not guaranteed to them. Neither is the harbor. Statewide, the California Coastal Act recognizes and protects the importance of commercial fishing activities and dissuades a port from eliminating or reducing its space. But the act proceeds with a catch — “unless the demand for those facilities no longer exists or adequate alternative space has been provided.”

San Diego Tuna Harbor Dockside Market

Locally, the Port Master Plan allocates 14 acres for commercial fishing and an additional 61 water-acres for commercial fishing berthing. It also mimics the Coastal Act concerning space, and adds “berthing, fresh market fish unloading and net mending activities are encouraged to be exposed to public view and to be a part of the working port identity.”

But as history has shown, the Port Master Plan is easily skirted, and as far as the Port of San Diego is concerned, the California Coastal Commission — which enforces the state act — has no teeth.

“Our enforcement department goes more after violations that are blocking public access …,” said California Coastal Commission planner and supervisor Kanani Brown, “versus going after the port itself for not enforcing or not having delivered on some of these commitments.”

Case in point: the commission is still waiting for updates and mitigation concerning the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan — a development project that broke ground nearly five years ago.

David Haworth, a second generation fishermen with 40 years experience, worked the Saturday fish market, but found time to talk about his fears for the future.

“We need to keep this area — I’m talking about this harbor right here,” Haworth said. “We’re not asking to expand it, but we don’t want to lose it.

“If they’re going to come and put in ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and swimming pools and all that … We’re not sure how that’s gonna work … We need to have parking — as you can see parking is a disaster for us — and we need to have a place to put our boats, and we need to have a place to unload our fish. Also, to get it to the public if we can.”

“We’re still surviving,” Haworth said, “but it’s scary. We have a gun to our head all the time.”

The halls of power

Over oysters (from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon) in Los Angeles’  Grand Central Market, Henry Pontarelli — of Lisa Wise Consulting — talked for hours about the global fishing market, his working relationship with the San Diego fleet, port staff and other fish-related topics. Such as how — with the exception of tuna — it’s illegal to serve sushi in the U.S. that hasn’t been frozen first. Because freezing kills parasites.

He took a deep breath before asking what — in his opinion — is the big question surrounding commercial fishing’s decline in America.

“Why are we where we are now?” Pontarelli asked. “What is the disconnect between what’s going on in the water, what’s going on in the halls of Washington and Sacramento, and what’s going on in ports and harbor districts that have led to this disconnect?”

The consensus, according to Pontarelli and other experts interviewed, is over-regulation.  After federal law extended control of U.S. waters in 1976, several things happened in quick succession: fishermen fished, some fishing stocks showed a decline and that birthed regulation upon regulation. Combined with a growing environmental movement, Pontarelli said, that wreaked havoc on small fishing communities like San Diego.

He rattled off examples of regulations: The size of the pane of the net. The size of the twine. Where fishermen can fish. When they can fish. What time they can deploy their net. The need for federally trained observers to accompany certain fleets. The number of sanctuaries where fishing is prohibited. Gear restrictions on boats.

As a result, the number of employees in the commercial fishing industry in San Diego County declined from 232 in 1997 to 102 less than a decade later.

While the rules certainly struck a blow to communities like San Diego, they also worked: A 2009 study found California had one of the world’s “most spectacular rebuilding efforts” of fish stocks after establishing the restrictions, which have been in place for decades.

“They told us ‘take the short-term pain for the long-term gain,’” Halmay said. “Well, we’ve done the short term. Now we’re ready for the long-term gain.” Which, to him, means loosening the state and federal restrictions that have for so long hamstrung his industry.

Flournoy, who has represented Halmay and his colleagues in the past, agreed.

“What I don’t see happening yet,” Flournoy said, “is any desire on the part of either the state Fish and Wildlife Department or National Marine Fisheries Service to allow fishermen back into [certain] fisheries that have been rebuilt.”

Another major problem referenced by Pontarelli, Halmay and Flournoy is the lack of cooperation between regulators and fishermen: Government scientists analyze fish stocks from behind a desk without taking advantage of, or information from, guys like Halmay, who call fishing for urchin “weeding their garden.”

“Fisheries science is way, way away from being an exact science,” said Flournoy. And a big problem, he said, is a notion among researchers and agencies that data supplied by commercial fishermen has no veracity.

“My wife tells me all the time: I should look at the bright side and I should be a nicer person, and I tried,” Flournoy said. “But I get so frustrated by what I see happening.”

One thing Flournoy didn’t mention is there appear to be very few Flournoys left. Meaning, maritime attorneys who both understand and side with the fishermen’s plight enough to take on cheap or pro-bono legal work. Without them, the fishermen — who earned an average annual salary of around $40,000 in 2008 — lose a major ally in asserting their rights against landlords, developers, government agencies and each other.

Phil Harris fishing

Gathering dust

About eight years ago, the state and port contributed more than $550,000 to study the opportunities and constraints facing San Diego’s commercial fishing industry. The result identified 27 courses of action, included a step-by-step implementation plan and called for between $20 million to $32 million to be invested in Driscoll’s Wharf and Tuna Harbor by way of building demolitions, new floating docks, wave studies and more.

“You mean the study that sat on the shelf ever since it was finished?” said Flournoy, who was a part of the steering committee for the Commercial Fisheries Revitalization Plan published in 2010. “It was a good study,” he said.

The board of port commissioners officially adopted the plan in December of that year, much to the delight of Halmay, Falk, Flournoy, Pontarelli, and Tom and Cathy Driscoll — who worked together on the plan.

“But a plan is just a plan,” said Pontarelli, whose firm created it. “It takes people to mobilize it.”

Gaffen found the study during the course of his research for Seaport. He folded one of its main conclusions — that both Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf must be maintained and upgraded to revive the commercial fishing industry — into his proposal. He called the revitalization plan’s findings “a goldmine.”

“In my 30 years of building things,” Gaffen said, “I can’t tell you how many projects are on the shelf collecting dust because the original sponsors or the group that maybe had the passion for moving it forward either moved on or got voted out of office or were replaced as commissioners. And I think it’s a tremendous waste.”

In October, Gaffen told inewsource he and the fishermen have agreed to update the plan, and have asked the port to be a part of that process.

Gaffen also confirmed he has dropped his plans for “mixed-use” at Tuna Harbor — meaning yachts and pleasure boats mixing with commercial fishing operations — at the insistence of the fishermen.

“As long as it’s not sitting empty,” Gaffen said of the harbor.

The old men got their way.

Phil Harris San Diego fisherman

More power than you would think

Randa Coniglio’s seventh-floor corner office at the Port of San Diego headquarters affords a commanding view of nearly everything under the agency’s jurisdiction — the South, Central and North embarcaderos, the shipyards in National City, the boats moored at Shelter and Harbor islands, and, on a clear day (maybe), Chula Vista and Imperial Beach. It’s a lot to take in.

Coniglio started at the port 16 years ago. She began inside the real estate department and rose to become the agency’s first female CEO. In October, she told inewsource she distinctly remembers piling on a bus as an elementary school student in San Diego to take yearly field trips to a downtown tuna cannery.

“And we always came home with a free can of tuna for mom,” Coniglio said.

Her agency lives by several core tenets, one of which is to promote commerce, navigation, recreation and fisheries. Despite that industry’s decline over recent years, Coniglio said, it’s still “very much part of the fabric of why we exist and what we do.”

It’s not difficult to find people who disagree with that statement: Flournoy, Falk, Halmay, Harris and former California state Sen. Denise Ducheny spoke to inewsource about decades of tussling with the port over the land and water relegated to the commercial fishing fleet. But Coniglio said the fishermen have more sway than “you would think.”

“They’re a really important stakeholder,” Coniglio said. “And when they show up at a Coastal Commission hearing, they’re listened to. So it’s really important to try to get their buy-in in any kind of big, comprehensive plans that we have and to make sure that they’re accommodated.”

Coniglio remembers a process she had to go through many years ago to accommodate the fishermen’s insistence on keeping a fish processing facility next to Ruocco Park, instead of demolishing it — which, according to Coniglio, “is why that building still stands.”

Halmay was one of those insisting.

A week prior to inewsource’s interview with Coniglio, Harris stood outside that same building clad in jeans and a ballcap. He had just left a public meeting of the Board of Port Commissioners inside.

Mega-developers, still technically in the running for the Central Embarcadero redevelopment, approached Harris to ask: Is he happy with Gaffen’s proposal? Does he have any concerns? How are the negotiations going?

Harris just smiled, stared off into the distance and muttered something vague.

A few minutes later, Flournoy showed up, throwing on his suit jacket as he walked from his car toward the entrance.

Harris told him the board pushed back the Seaport approval — a wasted trip.

“Figures,” Flournoy said, “Halmay’s out diving.”

“He’s got a sixth-sense about these things.”

Read the original post with additional videos included:

Aug 1 2016

Consider the Crab


Lori French, the daughter-in-law of a crab fisherman, the wife of another, and the mother of a third, placed two large bowls on a table. The one labeled “California” sat empty. The other, reading “Oregon,” was filled to the brim with bright-lavender-and-orange Dungeness crabs. It was early February, the night before the annual hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture at the state capitol, and French, who’s the president of a nonprofit called Central Coast Women for Fisheries, had organized a banquet that was part festive crab feed, part bare-knuckled lobbying effort.

For the benefit of her attendees, who included elected officials, bureaucrats, scientists, and fishermen and their families, she had shipped hundreds of pounds of Dungeness down from Oregon, where, unlike in California, the annual crab season was already under way. She believed that state officials were being too cautious in prohibiting commercial crabbing due to an outbreak of toxic domoic acid, an embargo that had decimated the fortunes of some 1,800 crab-fishing captains and crews in California. Domoic acid, she pointed out, had neither killed nor caused a reported sickening of anyone so far this year. Washington State had let commercial fishermen on the water. Why not reopen the waters in California?

It wouldn’t be that easy. The California Department of Public Health requires scientists to confirm two consecutive clean tests for potentially harmful toxins in locally caught crabs. Since the fall, at least one of every two tests had reported unacceptably high levels of domoic acid, which can poison all kinds of sea life and can sicken and potentially kill humans. By the time I caught up with French again in mid-March, several weeks after the banquet, the state’s crabbers were still out of luck. One recent test had come back clear, French told me over the phone. With one more clean bill of health, her husband and hundreds of other fishermen working the coastline from Santa Barbara up to Crescent City would have been able to drop pots and catch crabs. But when the subsequent test results came back, they weren’t good: A crab had been found with domoic acid levels in its organs at 38 parts per million, 8 above the cutoff level. French was devastated: “Our last bit of hope was just jerked away,” she said.

Through her organization, French knows fishermen and their families across California. The day before our chat, she’d spoken to one fisherman whose house was on the verge of foreclosure. Today she’d talked to another who had found a job in Washington but needed $200 to travel there. Despite fundraising dinners held in port towns along the coast, need outpaced money. French was amassing a long waiting list of fishing families requiring assistance. Pain crept into her voice when she talked about the food banks that had sprung up at the docks: “We’re the people who provide food, and we don’t have any.”

The Frenches are better off than many of the families for whom crab fishing is a way of life. Lori’s father-in-law bought agricultural land on the Central Coast in the ’70s. After he was killed coming back into the Morro Bay harbor in 1987, the farm—on which they grow avocados—passed to her and her husband, Jeff. Jeff has been in the fishing business since he was 16, and the Frenches now own two boats: the Nadine, a 53-footer, and the 42-foot Langosta II. But with the boats both idle, the Frenches had to rely solely on their other sources of income. They sell eggs to pay the grocery bills, and Lori works part-time as an office manager for a construction firm. Now they were considering putting the back bedroom up on Airbnb.

After we talked, French sent me an email. Make sure, she wrote, to emphasize that nobody had gotten sick this year from eating crabs. In fact, the Frenches knew some fishermen who had eaten Dungeness just the other day and had no problems. They would never want to sell something unsafe, she said, and she was sure that the crabs along California’s coast were harmless. “We’re not Chipotle,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine any Northern California food industry more local and sustainable—call it ocean-to-table—than crab fishing. A crew of guys (they’re almost always guys) on a boat drop big metal pots rigged with bait—squid, mackerel, maybe clams—into the water directly off our coast. Then, a day later, they come back and lug the pots up, loaded with crawling, snapping Metacarcinus magister, bound for markets and restaurants mere hours (or minutes) away from the point of capture.

But crab fishing is sustainable only if the ocean waters that the crabs swim in aren’t poisonous—and for five months of the 2015–16 crabbing season, they were. A vast toxic algae bloom, one of the largest ever recorded, produced enough domoic acid to effectively kill most of the season, and although the crab fishery finally did open, an ominous shadow had fallen over the entire coast. And not just for people who rely on crabbing for their livelihood: The great crab shutdown of 2016 was one of those events that inspire ominous thoughts in many coastal dwellers about the fragility of our food supply and the vulnerability of our producers. We’ve gone in just a few short years from theorizing about what might happen someday in a changing climate to grappling with the harsh realities of the Anthropocene—the geological epoch in which human impacts on the environment can no longer be ignored. This is a story about the instability of the seafood we eat and the degenerative health of the water it comes from. But mostly it’s a story about people who fish for crab and what happened the year they couldn’t.

In the same way that Hemingway described going bankrupt, the 2015–16 Dungeness crab season fell apart gradually, then suddenly. In the winter of 2012–13, an area of high atmospheric pressure parked in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge by a graduate student at Stanford, it deflected westerly winds away from the state. Normally, those winds churn the oceans, helping cooler water at lower depths well up toward the surface. With lower rates of upwelling, the water off the Pacific coast reached warmer temperatures than ever before recorded. At their peaks in 2014 and 2015, water temperatures were recorded at more than five degrees Celsius above normal, according to Clarissa Anderson, a biological oceanographer at UC Santa Cruz.

Nicholas Bond, the state of Washington’s climatologist, nicknamed the patch of warm water, which at times reached all the way from Alaska to Mexico, the Blob, and like its B-movie namesake, it wreaked havoc. The atypically warm water likely played a role in nourishing a vast algae bloom stretching from Santa Barbara to Alaska, 40 miles wide and 650 feet deep, whose poisonous by-products included domoic acid and paralytic shellfish toxins. Charismatic megafauna like sea lions washed up on beaches, apparently starving. You probably saw stories on Facebook about an inordinate number of sick seal pups being taken to the Marine Mammal Center in Marin to be rehabilitated—it was all connected. Although this year’s El Niño caused the algae bloom to more or less dissipate, the closure of the crab season had been set in motion.

In May 2015 at the docks of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, scientists launched person-size robotic submersibles packed with sensors and instruments. By the end of the month, these “biochemistry labs in a can” had returned with the news: Domoic acid, a naturally occurring organic molecule that usually dissipates harmlessly, was gathering at alarming rates. During a normal year, concentrations of 1,000 nanograms of the acid per liter of seawater would count as high. Last spring, Monterey Bay reached 10 to 30 times that level. By June, dead anchovies were washing ashore at Moss Landing, between Santa Cruz and Monterey, showing high levels of domoic acid in their bodies.

Biologists and public health officials were understandably alarmed by the findings. After the continent’s first recorded outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which sickened at least 107 people and killed 3 in Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1987, scientists began to study it in earnest. The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network keeps a dossier online: In 1991, domoic acid was discovered in the bodies of dead pelicans and cormorants in Monterey Bay—and soon after in the bodies of razor clams and Dungeness crabs in Oregon and Washington. Over five days in January 1996, 150 brown pelicans died at the tip of Baja California, likely after they’d eaten contaminated mackerel. Researchers have tied a series of sea lion miscarriages and pup deaths in the Channel Islands to domoic acid poisoning in the brains and bodies of the fetuses and newborns. In February of this year, Frances Gulland, a scientist who works at the Marine Mammal Center, published a paper reporting domoic acid poisoning in marine mammals off the Alaskan coast—the farthest north ever detected. Thirty large whales died in the Gulf of Alaska last summer, with domoic acid as a prime suspect. Domoic-acid-producing toxic algae blooms (the algae’s scientific name is Pseudo-nitzschia) have been found around the world, including off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Spain, and New Zealand and, closest to home, in Monterey Bay last May.

The question everyone wants the answer to, of course, is whether the extraordinarily large algae bloom that led to this year’s domoic acid outbreak was caused by global warming. Scientists are hesitant to assign a single cause to such phenomena, but they are fairly uniform in their conclusion that catastrophic natural events like the drought-worsening Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and the Pseudo-nitzschia-spawning warm-water Blob are a preview of worse times to come. Writing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, a team of Stanford scientists said that events like the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge “occur much more frequently in the present climate than in the absence of human emissions.” (A follow-up paper this year by the same team buttressed that conclusion.)

Though they are reticent about dealing a final verdict, scientists are increasingly worried that the anomalous could become the norm—that algae blooms and toxin outbreaks may well happen again, and with increased frequency and potentially worse consequences, as the climate changes.

Bodega Bay is “about an hour and a half on the freeway. Or two if you take the coast highway.” So says a character to Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which, coincidentally, was partially inspired by a mass die-off of seabirds in 1961 that scientists now link to a domoic acid outbreak. I drove up on the freeway, but it took me over two hours to putter from my apartment in Oakland to the Fishetarian restaurant in Bodega Bay. There, on a weekday morning in March, I met Shane Lucas, who paused from slinging fried cod sandwiches (mayonnaise, hot sauce, delicious) to talk about the season. After watching the wholesaler on the dock next to his sell Dungeness for years, he finally leased a boat with a permit and bought $50,000 worth of crab pots. “I thought I could make it back in two weeks,” he said. Now the pots were in dry dock under a nearby tree. “At least they look pretty, and they’ll keep until next year.”

Once you notice the pots, round metal wire traps about 18 inches high and a yard across, you see them everywhere, piled in backyards and lining the roads, standing at attention like an army that hasn’t left the barracks. There must have been dozens at the Tides, the town’s main wholesaler. Inside, a sign on a bulletin board had a forlorn message: “Help Our Fishermen. Bring food donations to the Spud Point Marina Office. Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.”

At the entrance to the Spud Point Marina, hundreds of crab pots dried in the sun. Across the street, the Spud Point Crab Co., a restaurant housed in a small shack, looked deserted. I was there to meet Dick Ogg, the captain of the fishing boat Karen Jeanne. He rested his weathered hands and chipped fingernails on a table inside the boat’s cabin as his two dogs, Buster and Nessie, ran around. Had this been a rough season for him? I asked, a little weakly. “Rough?” he chuckled. “That’s kind of an understatement.”

Ogg, 63, has fished recreationally his whole life—he still free-dives for abalone. Around 2000, he began to transition away from his job as an electrician and move into commercial fishing; now he and his crew fish for Dungeness, salmon, and black cod. He proudly showed me pictures of cod he’s caught, beaming like they were his grandchildren. The captains and deckhands in Bodega Bay rely on salmon in the summer and Dungeness in the winter. Last year’s salmon season was a disaster, but at least it opened. Ogg had hoped a strong crab season would pick up the slack. This, too, would be a disappointment.

In a typical year, it would have gone like this: About 60 days before the start of the season, Ogg and his two deckhands would have begun to prep the Karen Jeanne. Then they’d have waited for the all clear from the state, which usually happens in November. As a group, the fishermen would have negotiated a price for their catch with wholesalers before heading out. “If the weather allows, we’ll fish every single day” from around Thanksgiving time through Chinese New Year in February. Crabs depending, they’ll sometimes even fish into April, Ogg said.

The job is exhausting, but it pays. The first time that Ogg worked with his current crew, a few years ago, they pulled 70 pots loaded with Dungeness out of the water—over 7,000 pounds’ worth—in a single run. After they off-loaded, the crew wanted to call it a day. Ogg wanted to head out again. “They said they were tired. I said, ‘OK, but you realize that run was roughly $18,000. You want to give up another $18,000 tonight?’” (Ogg rules with a light hand—the crew won a rest.) Generally, deckhands receive between 10 and 15 percent of the proceeds from the catch, although some captains deduct costs before splitting the money. (Ogg doesn’t.) The most profitable part of the season is around the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, a crew member can make $30,000, amounting to 80 percent of the year’s income.

The hopes for a year like that were dashed early on, when the state closed the commercial crab fishery on November 6 of last year. The Department of Fish and Wildlife tapped Ogg as one of its unpaid volunteers to collect crab samples, which were then delivered to a lab in Richmond to be tested for domoic acid levels. So instead of hauling hundreds of crabs, the Karen Jeanne spent the winter catching six at a time—no more, no less—from three different depths at predesignated locations. Up and down the state, nervous fishermen reloaded Fish and Wildlife’s website every morning to see whether the little red dot next to “Dungeness crab” had turned green, indicating that the season was open. “When I started realizing this wasn’t going to happen,” said Ogg, “my objective was to find income for the deckhands. Most of the captains can tough it out, but the crews don’t have anything. They are young families, young guys, just hoping and waiting that everything will work out.”

The Spud Point Marina Advisory Board collected donations and passed out $100 Safeway gift cards to the crew members every month. Community members started a food bank in the harbor office. Some guys moved to live on the boats. Nobody wanted to say it, but drinking, always a problem among fishermen, became a bigger one. Although it was possible to find jobs on land, it was difficult, because the crabbers needed to be ready to fish at short notice. Ogg helped arrange day jobs for his crew doing electrical work. Others worked as substitute teachers, day laborers, or Christmas tree sellers.

Over a life on the water, Ogg has watched the changes roll by like waves. Forty years ago, he could find salmon in Bodega Bay. Not anymore. Albacore and rockfish would congregate in the Cordell Banks to the south, but it became a marine sanctuary in the ’80s, so he can no longer fish there. Last year, the salmon, starving, possibly because of low supplies of krill, turned to eating hard bait like anchovy and sardines. Usually the salmon’s flesh is red, like the licorice rope that the crew keeps on the boat, but last year it turned dry and tasteless and an unhealthy-seeming pink. During this last year, Ogg witnessed the most significant changes in the ocean that he’d ever seen: “It went from a cooler, krill-laden ocean to basically sterile up and down the coastline.” The domoic acid, he thinks, may have even affected whales. “They came right under the boat—that’s the first time that’s happened,” he said. “When we’re pulling, the whales will come up to sit and watch. They never used to do that. I keep thinking they are eating [domoic acid] and getting drunk.”

I mentioned that domoic acid causes amnesia and disorientation, and that the whales may indeed have been poisoned. He nodded sadly. I changed the subject and asked how he likes to eat crab. Cioppino or cracked? He lightened. “I’ll eat crab occasionally, but after you’ve seen hundreds of thousands of them, you don’t want to see it anymore. The boys”—that’s what he calls his crew—“eat it, though. It’s good for them.”

I asked him whether he thought that this year was an anomaly or part of a longer trend. The mood darkened again. Although he thought that much of what happened this year was cyclical, he was worried about the long term. “There’s a lot of young people in this business,” he said. “We have to do something to promote them. Otherwise, the industry is going to pass away.”

Although wounded, the state’s fishermen pulled through. The end of the closure came as a shock, a welcome surprise. On March 26, a few weeks after I’d chatted with Lori French and visited Dick Ogg, the little dot next to “Dungeness crab”on the Fish and Wildlife website turned from red to green. Crab season was back on, albeit five months later than normal. On Twitter, food writer John Birdsall called it “basically San Francisco Christmas.”

The next day, I paid a visit to the docks near Pier 45 in San Francisco. Despite the Alcatraz Psych Ward sweatshirts and In-N-Out Burger, Fisherman’s Wharf still operates as an actual wharf for actual fishermen. You can find them, too, if you sneak out back, past the tiny wooden Catholic chapel that still holds a Latin Mass on Sundays, to the long pier that points toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Inside a prep room behind Scoma’s restaurant, a crew of white-clad cleaners sprayed down the rubber mats on the floors with big hoses. Across the water, a forklift moved stacks of crab pots a half dozen at a time to cranes attached to the dock, where they would be loaded onto waiting boats. Lines were untied. Equipment was loaded and unloaded. Decks were swabbed. Cigarettes extinguished. Nods were exchanged and final conversations in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese were held. By the time the city’s office workers had staggered to their desks, the boats were long gone.

The following morning, as the first loads of crab returned, I wandered inside the warehouse at Alber Seafoods, where workers were packaging the harvest and moving it onto waiting trucks. Two men unloaded live crabs into plastic bins filled with water. Last year, on the first day of the season, workers say they’d cleared an estimated 14,000 pounds. Today they’d pulled in 5,800. I asked one of the workers how the crabs looked: “Nice and full,” he said, but there just weren’t enough of them. “We missed it all.” At least, I suggested, there was pent-up demand. People must be dying to eat crabs, yeah? Maybe not. “Like I tell my wife, it’s like sex,” he said. “After a while, you’re just out of the mood.”

To test this thesis, I headed over to Nob Hill, where by 11:30 there was a line out the door of Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street. In the window, fresh crabs sat on a bed of ice, their carapaces gleaming like gemstones in the sunlight. Waiting to get inside were representatives from every one of San Francisco’s jockeying demographics: a tourist; a college kid in a Cal football jersey; a pair of working-class dudes drinking beer from plastic cups; a couple of women wearing black leggings and sipping from water bottles, fresh from exercise class; a lady with dyed green hair wearing a “Humans for Bernie” T-shirt. Time for us to eat some Dungeness crab.

I paid $24 in cash for a half-cracked crab and an Anchor Steam. (The yellow viscera known as crab butter is safe to eat, too, but since domoic acid collects at higher concentrations there than in the meat, I avoided it. Also, I don’t really like it.) I piled the meat from a leg onto a thick slice of sourdough and splashed it with a goopy dollop of red cocktail sauce. So sweet, so cold, so delicious. The fisherman was obviously wrong. How could anyone not be in the mood for this?

In the dark before dawn on May 3, a little over a month into the abbreviated crab season, Dick Ogg guided the Karen Jeanne out of the Spud Point Marina. It was just after 5 a.m. on what would be their second-to-last crab run of the season, and ahead shone the lights of fishing boats that had left ahead of us. Onboard were Dick, the dogs, and his two deckhands. Hal, who works as a firefighter in San Jose, pulled his hoodie snugly against himself and napped inside the cabin. Joe, who works construction on the side, talked in nervous bursts of energy. As the sky began to lighten, Dick explained the day’s plan. They’d fish in the relatively shallow coastal waters of Bodega Bay, between their berth at the north end and Tomales Bay State Park to the south, where the federal government had recently forced the closure of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company farm. Filled with bait, their crab pots lay in rows by the dozen at the bottom of the water. When the boat passed by, Hal and Joe would raise them to the surface, hoping to find them filled with crabs. Normally, they would then add new bait and return the pots to the water, but today they’d stack the pots on deck to haul back with them.

It was a 15-mile run southeast to the first group of pots, the exact location of which I am bound not to reveal. The water was clear and calm. By 6:55, the sun had risen behind low clouds and we’d arrived. Joe elbowed Hal awake, and the two men put on rubber work clothes. “These days,” said Joe, “I run on 5-Hour Energy and attitude.” Dick climbed up to the top of the cabin, where another steering wheel allowed him to control the boat while keeping an eye on the buoys that marked where the pots sat in the water. I clambered up behind him.

The boat, rocking gently but persistently, pulled alongside a buoy that marked a pot’s location. “Coming up, coming up, coming up!” the crewmen called excitedly. Dick angled the approach so that the pot was close to starboard, where Hal waited with a hook affixed to a long pole. He attached a rope to an electric winch that pulled the pot up. Hal coiled the loose rope into an empty trash can, and Joe unclipped the buoy and cleaned it in a bucket full of bleach and water. When the trap emerged into the air, Joe and Hal took hold of it on either side and poured more than a dozen, maybe 20, crabs into a small holding tank. Joe hugged his arms around the sides of the pot and walked to the back of the deck, where he dropped it. They threw the leftover bait back into the water, which soon roiled with seagulls. When they had a moment, they used a metal tool to measure the length of each crab—61/4 inches was the magic number; any males smaller than that got thrown back, along with all the females. Joe and Hal tossed the keepers into a massive tank installed in the hull. The crabs’ claws twitched open and closed as they spun like Frisbees into the water.

The deckhands had about a minute before the boat, which never stopped moving forward, arrived at the next buoy, marking another pot. The day before, they’d pulled 160 80-pound pots out of the water, after which Hal had stacked them at Dick’s house past dark. The next day they would do it again, for the final time this season. Relatively speaking, these were slow, easy days.

By midafternoon, the crew had piled the back of the boat high with empty pots, and hundreds of crabs wriggled in the hold. The boat tipped noticeably toward its stern. Dick and the crew debated going after one more string of pots before heading home. They could do it either today or tomorrow, and as the boys began to call out, “One more! One more! One more!” Dick laid in the course.

They loaded until they had no more room, and then it was time to head home. At the Tides, they tied the boat up alongside a small crane, with which a worker pulled up the empty pots three at a time; another drove them away with a forklift. Once they had unloaded the pots, they pumped the water out of the hold and loaded crab after crab into crates. Beady eyes blinked and mouths gaped open and closed silently as the men grabbed them at the base of the back legs. Joe tried to convince the guys to buy his rare albino crab, which was actually an ordinary crab that he’d accidentally dropped into some bleach. No takers. He tossed it overboard.

The men had harvested just over 1,000 pounds. Two of the gorgeous little suckers came home with me in a box on the backseat of my Civic. For the 12-plus hours of work, Dick made a little more than $3,200. Joe and Hal each went home with $480. Not life-changing money, but a respectable haul—so much so that I asked Dick why they’d decided to call it a season. “It’s always good to stop,” he reasoned. “Nature’s telling me it’s time to move on.”

As summer began, life continued along the coast. Ogg motored the Karen Jeanne up to Washington, where he hoped the ship’s engine would be rebuilt in time for the late-summer salmon run. At the Marine Mammal Center, Frances Gulland braced for another year’s worth of dying sea lion pups. In the waters off Washington, scientists launched their own robotic “laboratory in a can,” similar to the one used in Monterey.

According to the preliminary figures from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in March, April, and May, fishermen had caught 5.7 million pounds of Dungeness crab, almost all of that total in April. That was less than a third of the yearly average over the last decade. In Monterey Bay, scientists kept a wary eye on domoic acid levels as the annual algae bloom returned. Around summer solstice, the answer began to emerge: It was good news. Tests indicated that levels had crept up to only three parts per million in mussels—far below the level of concern. Although a larger bloom could still occur, the likelihood increased that the state’s crab fishermen would catch a break this November.

That victory, however, may not last. This year was a scary wakeup call for the crab fishers, and the scariest thing was that there was nothing they could do, save for changing professions, to mitigate the next disaster. Another strong algae bloom, the crabbers fear, could bring the industry to its knees. Two lost seasons in a row could all but destroy it.

Could the Dungeness crab fishery disappear entirely? Probably not. But then again, who really knows? These are dark and uncertain times. Someday, not so long from now, you might miss eating Dungeness crab. You’ll miss sitting around the kitchen table with your family, crabs splayed out on white butcher paper, everybody splitting legs open with a nutcracker. You’ll miss the ritual, how it made you feel connected to the place where you live and to the people who hauled your feast up from the seafloor. Maybe you’ll bore the grandkids one day, years from now, with stories about how you used to pile the empty shells in bowls until the bowls tipped over.

Originally published:

Jun 23 2016

Characters of San Pedro Fish Market star in ‘Kings of Fish’ web reality series

San Pedro Fish Market's Tommy Amalfitano, one of the original founders, and nephew Michael Ungaro are two of the family members which run the busy seaside restaurant Saturday, June 18, 2016, San Pedro, CA. The restaurant, started in 1957, has grown to one of the busiest in the country Photo by Steve McCrank/Staff Photographer
San Pedro Fish Market’s Tommy Amalfitano, one of the original founders, and nephew Michael Ungaro are two of the family members which run the busy seaside restaurant Saturday, June 18, 2016, San Pedro, CA. The restaurant, started in 1957, has grown to one of the busiest in the country Photo by Steve McCrank/Staff Photographer


You can’t get more Pedro than the Fish Market.

As the family yarn goes, it all started with a couple of Italian immigrants selling fish, what else, out of ice chests from a tiny shop at Ninth and Meyler streets in the 1950s.

Today, the sprawling market and restaurant business run by four generations of the Ungaro and Amalfitano families packs in thousands who travel for miles on weekends to experience the famous shrimp tray with a glass — or two — of cold beer, a round of karaoke and majestic views of the passing ship traffic along the water’s edge in Ports O’ Call Village.

Chaotic, festive and brimming the old- and new-world Pedro character (and characters), the San Pedro Fish Market and Restaurant — Tommy Amalfitano, “Tommy Sr.,” was just a teenager when he began running his Uncle Mackey Ungaro’s small retail fish market named Vista Seafood in the 1950s and Tommy is still the boss — is making a stab at prime time celebrity as it debuts its own reality web series, “Kings of Fish,” on Friday.

“When you get us all together, it could be fun, it could be crazy or it could be a little psychotic” is how Michael Ungaro, a USC graduate and now a principal in the family-owned business, puts it in the one-minute trailer that’s already a much-shared hit. “You really don’t know what to expect.”

The goal, he said, is bigger than promoting the restaurant. The aim, he said, is to highlight the San Pedro community, founded by European immigrants who migrated here to fish. The restaurant, as it prepares for the July Port of Los Angeles Lobster Festival, serves as a microcosm of that larger narrative.

“We have this great story with a lot of characters,” said Ungaro, Tommy’s nephew.

It may all look very normal — just Pedro being Pedro — to the locals, he said. But outsiders seem drawn to the colorful, ethnic-rich, sometimes raw glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of a traditional seafood business at one of the busiest seaports in the world.

So they linked up with streaming media producer Scott Holmes and executive directors Tim Regan Wasmundt and Devin McGovern — whose resumes include shows such as “Iron Chef America” and “Bar Rescue” — in the pioneer movement that is bringing entertainment into homes directly through digital media.

The result, producers said, is “network-quality programing that engages audiences.”

The idea behind the short “webisodes” is to cut out the network middleman and garner sponsors directly. It’s only been done by large name brands such as Nike so far, Holmes said, making the fish market rollout something of an experiment to see how it might work for smaller businesses.

New webisodes will appear each Friday, beginning this week, and remain online for viewing anytime. Set to run are four five-minute-long episodes that will air on If those are successful, they’ll produce more.

The first episodes will largely be character-building narratives highlighting the family members who run the growing business, Holmes said.

It’s not the first time the restaurant has been in the spotlight.

“People have flown in from Texas who saw us on the Travel Channel,” Ungaro said. “We’ve had people here from Seattle who saw us on the Food Network.”

And the market’s YouTube channel carries several videos created over the past few years.

Launching a San Pedro Fish Market frozen food for retail consumers has further expanded the market’s celebrity. Its “World Famous Shrimp Tray” line now is found in more than 1,000 grocery stores across four states, including Hawaii. Talks are ongoing to put the brand in Costco and Sprouts.

Holmes said the family needed very little coaching in front of the camera.

“It was fun making it,” he said. “They’re such naturals. We always give some direction, but we didn’t have to give much. This is really who they are.”

Since its opening in 1956 (it was at Norm’s Landing, just north of where it is now, before opening in Ports O’ Call in 1962), the restaurant has tripled its indoor and vast patio seating capacity to nearly 3,000, serving more than 1.1 million customers each year. The business has been promised a new spot in the San Pedro Public Market, the development that will remake Ports O’ Call, with some of its new dining space to be constructed over the water and the promenade. The current facility will remain open until the new restaurant is built and ready for occupancy.

Its food, atmosphere and immigrant family roots make it a true San Pedro original and the market was wooed three years ago, Ungaro said, for a television reality show. The family backed off when it became clear they would have to forfeit some creative control — on top of providing a percentage of their restaurant sales to the film company.

Holmes said a teaser clip got nearly 200,000 views in less than a week’s time. He expects the Fish Market webisodes to be a hit.

“From a quality perspective, it’s as good as a network show,” he said. “From a character perspective, that family, you’ve gotta love them. They’re all characters.”

The San Pedro Fish Market makes for a popular weekend destination, drawing thousands of customers a day. The restaurant, started in 1957, has grown to one of the busiest in the country. Saturday, June 18, 2016. (Steve McCrank / Staff Photographer)San Pedro Fish Market’s Tommy Amalfitano, left, one of the original founders, and nephew Michael Ungaro are two of the family members who run the busy San Pedro seaside restaurant, which was started in 1957 and has grown into one of the busiest in the country. Photo by Steve McCrank/Staff Photographer


Read the original post:

Dec 27 2015

Seafood Restaurants Cast a Wider Net for Sustainable Fish


Michael Chernow doesn’t want people to step inside Seamore’s, his fish-fixated restaurant on the rim of Little Italy, worrying that they’re about to get a heap of science homework dumped onto the table.

“Our goal is not to say: ‘Welcome to Seamore’s School. We’re going to teach you all about sustainable fish,’” said Mr. Chernow, who is also one of the entrepreneurs behind the Meatball Shop chain.

But there is a blackboard. Labeled “Daily Landings,” it covers a wall of the restaurant, operating as a shortcut syllabus for anyone who wants to learn not only what fish are being cooked in the kitchen at Seamore’s, but also what species have been deliciously available for human consumption for centuries: dogfish, tilefish, Acadian redfish, porgy, hake, cusk, striped black mullet.

“Once they see the board, everybody gets pumped,” Mr. Chernow said. “‘Wow, look at all these fish, and I’ve never tasted them before.’”

Over the last decade or so, restaurant diners in this country have become more sophisticated about, and open to, ingredients that used to throw them for a loop: bone marrow, pork belly, sunchokes, orange wine, the ubiquitous kale.

But they’ve remained curiously conservative when it comes to seafood. Salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices, dominate one restaurant menu after another.

That is changing, however. A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers in New York and around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction — as well as the invasive species that do threaten them. And the group has enlisted a special fleet of allies to the cause: the fish themselves.

The way these specialists see it, you can lecture diners about the fate of the oceans, or you can open their minds by stuffing some sea robin into a taco or frying up some crevalle jack for a sandwich, and watching their consciousness shift with each bite.

“What we’ve been trying to do is to take the familiar and infuse it with unfamiliar species,” said Vinny Milburn, an owner and fishmonger at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Company in Brooklyn, where you won’t find cod but will encounter lionfish, wild blue catfish and almaco jack. “If we put it in tacos, people will buy it and they’ll say: ‘That’s a great fish. I’ve never heard of it.’”

There are fringe benefits for the chefs, too: When an ingredient is less popular, that usually means that it’s less expensive. And figuring out how to conjure up something irresistible out of, say, a bluefish collar helps break cooks out of culinary ruts. “Yeah, it’s a challenge,” the chef Tom Colicchio said. “What do you do with it? I actually like that: It just forces you to be creative.”

Anyone who has taken a beach vacation knows that clam shacks have been frying up the local catch for ages. At the fancier end of things, elite chefs like Mr. Colicchio, Dan Barber, Eric Ripert, Dave Pasternack, David Chang and Kerry Heffernan have made a point of letting people know that bluefin tuna is not the only fish in the sea.

But lately, the idea of casting a wider net has begun spreading to neighborhood spots, diners and national chains like Slapfish, a growing West Coast enterprise that hopes to open a New York City outpost in 2016.

Louis Rozzo, the president of the F. Rozzo & Sons wholesale distributor in New York and a fourth-generation fishmonger, remembers the sort of comments his family used to hear from chefs: “Who’s going to come to an expensive restaurant and order porgy?” Now, porgy, as well as local tilefile and hake, is in high demand.

“I sell more porgies now by far than I ever have, because people are interested in using something different,” Mr. Rozzo said.

There are many different ways of thinking differently, and locally. At Beachcraft, Mr. Colicchio’s new spot in Miami Beach, the menu makes room for wahoo, cobia, queen snapper, Florida clams and Key West shrimp.

Change is not always easy, especially when customers are in vacation-relaxation mode. “It’s hard because you’re in a hotel and people want the usual things,” said Mr. Colicchio, who has resisted suggestions from the owners of the hotel, 1 Hotel South Beach, that he make room on the menu for a safe bet like salmon.

At Rose’s Fine Food in Detroit, the traditional Great Lakes fish fry is given its due with the Wild Man Breakfast, which pairs a pan-fried lobe of brook trout with a plate-blanketing blueberry pancake. Lucy de Parry, who owns the diner with a cousin, the chef Molly Mitchell, can’t imagine serving industrially harvested tuna or salmon or cod. “You can’t really eat that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s destroying the environment.”

Sticking to local traditions makes sense in the kitchen, since Rose’s Fine Food is meant to celebrate what is grown and fished around Michigan. “We grew up eating brook trout and bluegill and all these little lake fish that our grandpa would catch,” she said. “They’re just there. We kind of roll with what we’ve got.”

Still, many people aren’t even aware that many of these fish exist, or that they are thoroughly edible. Shrimp, salmon and canned tuna alone make up 60 percent of the seafood Americans eat, according to the National Fisheries Institute. (Add the next four species on its list — all usual suspects like tilapia and pollock — and you hit 85 percent.)

Even top chefs find themselves making discoveries that alter the way they think about cooking and nature.

At N/naka, in Los Angeles, the chef Niki Nakayama dreamed of putting together an explicitly Californian rendition of a Japanese kaiseki menu. “The whole philosophy is about showcasing what is close to us,” she said. Much of the produce wound up coming from her own garden, but as she scouted around for seafood that embodied the region’s essence, she came up short. “I kept hitting dead ends,” she said.

Eventually Ms. Nakayama joined forces with Dock to Dish, a coast-to-coast organization that helps local fishermen come to chefs with uncelebrated species that may not otherwise fetch top price in the marketplace — “things I hadn’t seen before,” as she put it. Suddenly, she had at her fingertips whelk-like turban snails and lingcod and ridgeback shrimp and spiny lobster.

She remembers thinking, as the deliveries began to arrive, “Oh, my God, we just landed a treasure chest.”

Arguably no chef in America is more passionate about seafood than Michael Cimarusti, whose flagship restaurant in Los Angeles, Providence, has drawn acclaim for its reverent approach to fish. He is preparing to open Cape Seafood and Provisions, a shop devoted to sustainable seafood. “I feel like the time is right to work on flipping the model,” he said.

He, too, has become a Dock to Dish convert, and in conversation he gets fired up by the challenge of improvising with whatever lands in the kitchen. “I was not necessarily in the market for longspine thornyheads, but that’s what came in one day,” Mr. Cimarusti said, citing a Pacific Coast breed that is colloquially known as “idiot fish.” “We used every part of it. We made a bouillabaisse broth.”

There can be misfires. “It’s sort of trial and error,” he said. “Every fish that we’ve been getting, you’ve got to treat them in different ways.”

The process has changed his way of thinking. “To me there aren’t really many ‘trash fish,’” he said. “They’re just underappreciated, or unrecognized.” (Then again, he draws the line at hagfish. “That stuff’s nasty,” he said. “That comes up like a ball of slime on your hook.”)

Indeed, changing minds sometimes requires a dash of crafty Trojan-horse-style marketing. At Slapfish, which the entrepreneur Andrew Gruel says he wants to turn into “the Chipotle of seafood,” customers come back for “the ultimate fish taco” even though the species of fish inside (hoki, blue catfish, California rockfish) constantly shifts, depending on supply.

“What I do is I get people addicted to the dish and not the fish in the dish,” Mr. Gruel said. He’s also not averse to giving a fish a different name. If “hoki” sounds too obscure or confusing, call it “slapfish.” If people wince at the word “sardines,” may they be more open to his preferred nomenclature: “petite bass”?

Some restaurants go even farther afield to introduce an American audience to species that seem to have been beamed in from other planets. Maiden Lane, in the East Village and in the Urbanspace Vanderbilt market in Midtown, ships in subtle conservas (some of the world’s most elegant canned foods, including stickleback) from countries like Spain, Portugal and Iceland. (A tin of delectable brined cockles from the Ramón Peña company is on the menu for $55.)

At Chaya, in downtown Los Angeles, freakish-looking outliers from Japan like beltfish and red cornet are served to your table in a medley of ways, from sashimi to tempura. Flying them halfway around the world may not count as an eco-friendly gesture, but these oceanic oddities are a far cry from being decimated the way cod has. “Hopefully they’ll try something new and not just those fishes that are overfarmed and overcaught,” said Jenni Hwang, director of marketing for the Chaya Restaurant Group.

At Norman’s Cay, an island-themed restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an owner, Ryan Chadwick, hooks customers with a dramatic lure: The place specializes in lionfish, an invasive demon of the sea that is notorious for chowing its way through the Caribbean. Mr. Chadwick encountered lionfish in the Bahamas and got an idea.

After removing the venomous spines, the crew at Norman’s Cay applies the simplest of treatments, cooking it on a grill or in hot oil. “We have people calling the restaurant and they’re waiting for the fish to come in,” he said. “Now we have a supply problem.”

Ultimately, the new emphasis on serving different fish is not really about elbowing eaters out of their comfort zone; it’s about pulling them back into it. Making a delicious dinner from a fish that swims in nearby waters is a way of reconnecting with the region you’re in — and returning to an intimate relationship with the water that goes way back.

Michael Psilakis, the chef whose modernized Greek cuisine can be found in and around New York at spots like MP Taverna and Kefi, looks back to the days in his Long Island childhood when he “spent a ridiculous amount of time on boats fishing with my dad.”

Mr. Psilakis remembers pulling up to a beach and using nets to catch whitebait in the shallows. The tiny wrigglers would be kept in buckets with seawater and taken home to be dredged in flour and crisped in oil like piscine French fries. He remembers catching porgy and watching it cook on the grill.

On certain days, Mr. Psilakis and his team still cook and serve porgy and whitebait just like that at various branches of MP Taverna. “Porgies are so cheap, man,” he said. “It used to be a fish that they would throw out. Nobody wanted to eat a porgy.”

But he has learned that if you want more people to eat porgy, all you have to do is get them to try it.

“When we sell those specials, that story is being told,” he said. “The story not only sells the fish, but the story brings an identity to the fish. Somehow it means something. There’s value to it.”

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Oct 31 2015

New Report Shows Value of US Fish Landings Strong – Fisheries of the United States 2014

headerOctober 29, 2015


As we close out National Seafood Month this week, NOAA Fisheries released the Fisheries of the U.S. Report for 2014 today.

Each year, we compile key fisheries statistics from the previous year into an annual snapshot documenting fishing’s importance to the nation. Inside the 2014 report, you’ll find landings totals for both domestic commercial and recreational fishing by species. This information allows us to track important indicators such as annual seafood consumption and the productivity of top fishing ports.

Here are a few highlights from the report:

• U.S. commercial fishermen landed 9.5 billion pounds of seafood valued at $5.4 billion in 2014.
• There were strong landings of 3.1 billion pounds for the nation’s largest commercial fishery, walleye pollock, valued at $400 million.
• Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, continue to dominate the list of top ports driven by landings of pollock for Alaska and sea scallops in Massachusetts.
• U.S. marine and freshwater aquaculture production was valued at $1.4 billion, about one-quarter the value of the nation’s commercial wild catch.
• The five highest value commercial species categories were crabs ($686 million), shrimp ($681 million), lobster ($625 million), salmon ($617 million), and scallops ($428 million).

In our recreational fisheries:

• 10.4 million anglers took 68 million trips in 2014.
• These recreational anglers caught 392 million fish, and released sixty percent of those caught.
• The total harvest was estimated at 155 million fish weighing 186 million pounds.
• The top five U.S. species ranked by pounds landed were striped bass, bluefish, yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi, and summer flounder.

We have also posted Fisheries Economics of the United States for 2013. The report highlights the positive far-reaching economic impact of the seafood and recreational fisheries industries on the U.S. economy. The 2014 version of Fisheries Economics of the United States will be released within the next few months.

Fisheries of the United States 2014 and Fisheries Economics of the United States 2013 are available on our website.
Warm Regards,

Laurel Bryant
Chief, External Affairs
NOAA Fisheries Communications