It was easy to assume that the seafood available in any of those fine wharf-side establishments was actually shipped in on ice for the enjoyment of tourists and amateurs who didn't know better. There’s a Joe’s Crab Shack there, after all, and they have one of those in St. Louis.
Local seafood, as far as I was concerned, was like the weather during our chilly summers – just a misunderstood myth kept alive by the hordes of out-of-towners buying fleece jackets in July and clamoring for chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. On the other hand, just look at all that water around us! Something must live in there, right? Something that I could eat, maybe? So, like any curious San Franciscan would do, I sought out a local folk hero to help me sort through the flotsam.
Calling himself "Lombard of the Intertidal," Kirk Lombard is a self-proclaimed "writer, musician, raconteur, and eel champion" – not to mention a recently laid-off employee of the Department of Fish and Game. Kirk’s knowledge of local fisheries is so extensive the department uses his photos and descriptions of the Bay’s fish species for its identification guides. They aren’t exactly magazine centerfolds, but Kirk’s passion for underappreciated fish as a source of sustenance can make even the ugliest set of gills seem attractive.
Kirk first popped up on my sonar when a friend of mine became obsessed with fishing for monkeyface-eel. Not actually an eel, but a type of prickleback, monkeyface are a locally abundant, unattractive-looking fish that have caught the attention of local chefs like slow-food queen Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Part of the monkeyface-eel’s appeal is that it is caught only by hand, one at a time, with the traditional method of poke-pole fishing. Kirk currently holds the record for the largest monkeyface-eel ever caught, which makes him the foremost authority on the subject.
Kirk has been dispensing advice on the local fisheries through his blog for some time now, but when it comes to actually catching some sea life for dinner, the best course of action is to get down on the water and start hunting. Which is how I found myself in a parking lot on the St. Francis Jetty near the Wave Organ on a sunny Sunday afternoon, seeking out the tall guy in the baggy fishing waders who would be our guide on a ForageSF’s Wild Seafood Walk, and hopefully set me straight on local seafood.
The walk (really more of an instructional group tour around the Marina Yacht harbor) was already in session when I arrived. A few of Kirk's superfans were asking about geoducks (pronounced "gooey-duck"), which are not waterfowl as you might expect, but actually a type of large clam. Kirk explains that geoducks and the more commonly found gaper clams are similar in "size and phallic horror," and I start to get the sense that hunting for seafood is more fun once you realize the ocean is both sexy and terrifying.
Appropriately enough, there are some risks to putting things in to your mouth that came out of the ocean. The geoducks, Kirk explains, are fine to eat raw. The filter-feeding gaper clams, on the other hand, should always be cooked. As Kirk says, "fecal coliform is something to avoid” especially when foraging so close to the Marina where yacht owners sometimes dump their vessel’s waste. The distinction between "finding free food" and "picking up something edible off the ground" is a fine line – and one that ought to be taken seriously.
A red tide (May 1–October 31), for example, is just one sign that mother ocean would rather not have you partake in her bounty for a while. Specifically, by giving you a lethal case of paralytic shellfish poisoning. Although there has been only one case of the disease in the area in the past 20 years, Kirk tells us it was an unlucky scallop found on the beach that killed a man before he could even be airlifted to a hospital. As much as I love a good scallop, I’d like to avoid death. The ocean is a fickle mistress it seems.
During the months when the shellfish won’t kill you, Kirk explains that ocean mussels can easily be had by picking them from local spots like the jetty we’re currently standing on. Leading the group out toward the Wave Organ, Kirk is pointing out beds of edible kelp as we go. As you’d probably expect, they smell a little fishy, but are apparently “just a little salty” if you rinse them off and let them dry out into flaky sheets.
By now it’s almost low tide, so the mussels clinging to the Bay-side of the jetty are exposed and Kirk hops down to pick a few. He’s eaten them from here before and knows there is a good flow of clean water. I trust that he knows what he’s talking about, but the smell wafting over from the marina serves as a reminder that any urban fishing spot is never that far from what some consider a garbage dump. One advantage of picking mussels on a public pier, Kirk explains, is that you never need a fishing license. As soon as you step onto the sand though, you’re at risk for a fine. So watch your step.
If you’re foraging for something to top your salad, Kirk recommends limpets – small snails that stick to the side of the jetty and are generally fine to eat raw, depending on where you find them. (Again, remember fecal coliform.) There’s a quirky rule for limpets, though – they’re illegal to pluck with a tool. I’m thinking something like a flathead screwdriver would be ideal for the purpose, but in this case a “hook and line” is the only acceptable one to the Department of Fish and Game. Kirk uses a small tool made from an old fishing hook with a piece of line still attached. Loopholes, it seems, are a large part of foraging.
Foraging for seafood doesn’t mean just picking immobile creatures off piers, though. As Kirk explains, the real forage fish are the baitfish – smaller fish that swim in large schools and can be hand-caught by the net load. Night smelt, herring, and Pacific sardines are some local favorites that are relatively free of toxins and mercury due to their short lifespan and place on the food chain. They do require a bit of knowledge to know when to fish, but once your nets are in the water, you’ll be pulling up herring by the bucketful anywhere along the city’s waterfront from Fisherman’s Wharf to McCovey Cove.
My tour winds down as we start losing sunlight and I’m woefully underprepared or properly layered for fishing at night. Kirk casts a crab snare into the Bay and while he waits for a rock crab to come looking for his squid bait, he pokes around in the rocky shore with a homemade bamboo poke pole. He’s looking for our original prey – the monkeyface-eel. He comes up empty handed, unfortunately. The snare snags two Dungeness crabs but we can’t keep them since they’re illegal to catch east of the Golden Gate Bridge. It does give our guide the opportunity to preach the merits of the misunderstood rock crab, however – a tougher-shelled cousin of the Dungeness that you’re free to pull out of the Bay as much as you’d like.
With the sun setting over the Golden Gate Bridge, I leave the Marina feeling like I’ve come away with just enough information to safely find a free dinner on the city’s shoreline, and I’m hungry to start searching on my own, especially now that I know how to avoid a mussel-induced coma. The ocean, alluring thing that she is, still deserves to be handled responsibly. As Kirk would point out, educating ourselves about its exploitation is the key part of maintaining a long and happy relationship.
ForageSF sponsors a variety of wild edibles walks including the San Francisco Fishing Tour along the shoreline. Its next seafood walks are scheduled for Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 26.
With more time on his hands, Kirk intends to offer a variety of new foraging tours from a mollusk and clam tour, to a kid-friendly tide-pooling tour, a poke-poling tour of the San Mateo coast, and a tour through Fisherman’s Wharf. If you’re interested, you’d do well to keep an eye on Kirk’s blog .
Once you’re equipped with the proper knowledge to avoid paralytic shellfish poisoning, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got all the proper paperwork to fish on your own. Then hit up Gus' Discount Tackle on Balboa for a poke pole or other equipment.