Why Isn't Local Seafood a Bigger Deal in the Bay Area?

Teresa Mendoza cuts salmon before weighing the fillets at TwoXSea, a seafood wholesaler at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf on May 31, 2019. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Rayan Rafay was prepared to be blown away by Bay Area seafood when he moved here in 2016.

After growing up on the East Coast, he had been amazed by the seafood he encountered when he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia.

"It's just this like magical wonderland of seafood," he said. "Chefs just did things with seafood on the West Coast that I'd never even imagined in my lemon butter world of fish."

Rafay said he saw this in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, and he assumed he would find the same thing when he moved to the Bay Area. After all, it's a place with a long tradition of fishing and home to many immigrant groups — Chinese, Japanese, Italians and others — for whom fish play a big part in culture and diet.

Rafay even went out on local waters with a commercial fisherman and caught his own rock cod and halibut. But back on land, he wasn't seeing those local catches showing up on many local menus.

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"I couldn't find any of the fish that I'm pretty sure are right outside in the ocean," he said.

So he asked Bay Curious: With the Pacific Ocean right there, why isn't local seafood a bigger deal in the Bay Area?

Show Me the Money

Like many things in the Bay Area, the seeming dearth of a robust local seafood scene can be traced in part to the cost of doing business — and that, in turn, can be traced to the region's high real estate costs.

"How expensive it is to stay in business in the Bay Area means that all of us who are in business are trying to find ways to cut costs, and we are cutting costs in the ingredients that we are using," said Kenny Belov, who runs Fish restaurant in Sausalito and TwoXSea, a seafood wholesaler at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

Lourdes Mendoza guts rockfish at TwoXSea, a seafood wholesaler at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco on May 31, 2019. (Audrey Garces/KQED)

Bay Area restaurants have to deal with high rents and high salaries among other costs, and adding in the volatility and uncertainty that comes with buying local, wild-caught seafood can make things even tougher.

It's much easier and more economical, according to Belov, for restaurants to serve Atlantic salmon raised in fish farms. These fish provide a consistent supply at a consistent price all year long, but some see farmed salmon as an inferior product and potentially harmful to the oceans.

Wholesale farmed salmon sells for around $8 per pound year-round, while wild-caught salmon is going for closer to $20 per pound this year, and isn't guaranteed to be available every day even in season.

Belov doesn't offer farmed salmon at Fish restaurant or TwoXSea, instead choosing to only buy and serve seafood that can be traced all the way back to the boat it was caught on and the person who reeled it in.

"To me that's what makes food taste better. It's not just food on a plate. It's the story of the men and women who work so hard to get those ingredients," he said.

But he knows doing that raises his costs, and he says part of the reason more restaurants aren't willing to take on those extra costs is because there's not enough demand from consumers.

"It seems like when it comes to seafood we just don't want to pay a lot for it," Belov said of Bay Area diners. "We're still kind of in that fish-stick mentality of it's cheap, it's protein and it's abundant."

On the other hand, consumers in places like China and Japan are more than willing to pay top dollar for many of the region's top catches, including crab, spiny lobster and black cod.

Salmon for sale at Berkeley Bowl on June 22, 2019.
Locally caught chinook salmon for sale at the Berkeley Bowl on June 22, 2019. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Where Are the Fish?

It's not just about the demand; the supply of wild-caught Bay Area seafood has been in flux in recent years.

Several California fisheries, including chinook salmon, Dungeness crab and rockfish, have been curtailed or temporarily shut down in recent years due to population declines traced to overfishing, water diversions, habitat destruction and drought, among other factors.

"The number of fish that we can actually catch has gone way down," said Mike Hudson, who has worked as a commercial fisherman in the Bay Area for decades, catching mostly salmon.

Hudson remembers years when the region's chinook salmon season netted more than a million fish in just a few months. But the salmon fishery was completely shut down in 2008 and 2009, and it has been carefully managed ever since.

Commercial fisherman Mike Hudson off-loads a boat full of chinook salmon at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay.
Commercial fisherman Mike Hudson offloads a boat full of chinook salmon at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

There were significant restrictions placed on salmon season the past three years, resulting in fewer fish and prices jumping to around $30 to $35 per pound.

"People used to come to our farmers markets and buy 2 pounds of salmon or 4 pounds of salmon for their family for the entire week," Hudson said. "Now the same people come and they buy half a pound."

Attempts to restore habitat, improve salmon hatchery practices and recent wet winters have fishermen like Hudson feeling optimistic about the upcoming and future salmon seasons, but the salmon population is still far from the million-fish seasons of Hudson's early days, and a fillet still costs around $20 per pound.

Knowledge Is Power

But it's not all about how much local, wild-caught seafood costs.

"There's also just a lack of awareness," said Jana Hennig, the executive director of Positively Groundfish, a nonprofit that promotes groundfish caught on the West Coast. "Most people just don't know what is even a local species here in California."

Many of the 90 or so species of groundfish that Hennig works with — which include Pacific cod, rockfish and sole — aren't as expensive as better-known Dungeness crab or chinook salmon.

But because many consumers aren't as aware of the breadth of local options, Hennig said many Bay Area chefs are hesitant to feature them on their menu, even with the low cost.

"If more people actually went to restaurants and said, 'Hey, do you have any local seafood? And do you ever serve rockfish?' They'd be far more inclined to actually put it on the menu," she said.

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