San Francisco's Seafood Scene
January 31, 2013 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Why isn't there more seafood in the San Francisco Bay Area? Geography, history, or something else?

Other major port side cities have booming fish markets and access to lots of fresh seafood.

Why is this missing in San Francisco? Clams and oysters seem to be all we have. The only two reasons I can think of: not enough naturally occurring seafood in the nearby waters, or some historical / cultural preference for other cuisine. But I can't find any supporting evidence from a quick internet search.

Does anybody know?
posted by graphtheory to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Uh, what about crab?
posted by kelseyq at 1:10 PM on January 31, 2013

Why isn't there more seafood in the San Francisco Bay Area?

I think before I answer, I'd like to know why you seem to be overlooking the existance of Fisherman's Wharf.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:13 PM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with you graphtheory, it does seem like there isn't much local fish (not crustaceans). I'd love to know why that is.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:14 PM on January 31, 2013

One thing could be that the people who settled San Francisco were (maybe?) largely from the Midwest, which doesn't have a strong seafood eating culture because... it's inland, obviously. So people didn't bring elaborate fish recipes or cravings for certain types of fish or a strong desire to find a local fish substitute for X ingredient they were used to. They adapted to eat locally abundant shellfish, but there was no strong drive to get out there and find a good source of fin fish.

That said, I might be wrong about the demographics of early San Francisco settlement.

Also, isn't one of San Francisco's signature dishes cioppino? That would imply that there is a fin fish oriented seafood scene.
posted by Sara C. at 1:20 PM on January 31, 2013

There are three seafood industries that use San Francisco Bay as a nursery (salmon, halibut, and crab). I admit I'm still baffled at the perception that seafood isn't a thing in San Francisco.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:24 PM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

This Chowhound thread asks a similar question, and the takeaway seem to be there just isn't much out there year round. Halibut and salmon are sometimes local, sometimes shipped in from Alaska, then there's oysters and crab pretty regularly, deep water fish like sturgeon and swordfish that come nearish at certain times, and the balance come from warmer waters down the coast. It's certainly not like what you can get on the East Coast of the U.S.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:42 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

The biggest thing is that we have eaten and/or destroyed the habitat of most everything that lives there. The salmon run is almost non-existant, the crab fishery is hit-or-miss, and the halibut isn't anything to write home about either, with a short season.

Seafood, on the whole, is now a global market. If you actually examined the origins of the fish at most "fisherman's wharf" fish markets in the United States, you would see that the fish are from all over the world, and many will be mislabeled as "red snapper" or whatever even if they are not. Also, all the fish are drastically smaller than what you would see even twenty years ago.

downer, sorry

I think the other thing is that the Bay Area has such fantastic non-seafood, that as seafood has gone down in quality over the years, it has been overshadowed by everything else.
posted by rockindata at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

Cannery Row wasn't written about beans, but the populations have declined recently.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:02 PM on January 31, 2013

I think rockindata is right. This is happening everywhere to some degree (e.g. the Atlantic cod fishery which was an important part of Maritime Canadian food and culture), but SF is seeing it particularly badly due to water and habitat issues in the Bay watershed.

I would point out that oysters (which are grown) and anchovies and sardines (small fish, lower on the food chain are more plentiful, at least for now) are quite popular.
posted by ssg at 2:19 PM on January 31, 2013

The big dams and irrigation projects wiped out the surgeon, salmon and trout, hydraulic mining, gross pollution and coastal wetland loss did for the Bay fisheries and native oysters (fun fact, the Bay used to be papered in them and Sacramento was tidal) and overfishing ended the abalone and rockfish commercial fisheries. Halibut just aren't that abundant.

There aren't a lot of estuaries on the West Coast and estuaries and shallow shelfs are the productive areas that make fish. A lot of the deep open ocean is kind of a wasteland, fish wise. SF Bay is one of the worst impacted estuaries in the entire world in terms of habitat loss and pollution. The major river systems feeding it are hosed, its full of dirt from the mountains, there ate more invasive than native spp and it used to be full of raw sewage too.
posted by fshgrl at 2:24 PM on January 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

The major river systems feeding it are hosed, its full of dirt from the mountains

...and that dirt is full of mercury from the Gold Rush days, and is unsurprisingly in the food chain. Here's a pdf from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that explains what fish you can eat and how often, in order to avoid mercury poisoning.

And a couple years ago we ended a three-year (I think, might've been four) ban on salmon fishing because there weren't enough salmon to sustain commercial fishing.
posted by rtha at 2:49 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

More info on the declines from Fish, the best fish restaurant in the Bay Area, just across the bridge in Sausalito. Seriously amazing local fish in a beautiful setting.
posted by judith at 9:47 PM on January 31, 2013

There's a little bit more. Building on what rockindata said, lots and lots and lots of places with "seafood scenes" have totally ersatz food cultures. Like, it's all fish 'n' chips made with the same frozen Alaska pollack and shrimp from a massive, destructive Thai aquaculture farm as everywhere else.

The Bay Area—Chez Panisse in particular—made that kind of dishonesty about food deeply uncool. If you are listing the rancher and farmer for the primary ingredients of all your other entrees, you feel like an idiot if your shrimp dish is made from frozen, imported shrimp or farmed "Atlantic" salmon. So you skip it.

on preview: Fish is a great restaurant.
posted by purpleclover at 5:01 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

The mercury isn't just washing down from the gold mines in the Sierra. The south bay was home to the cinnabar mines that supplied that mercury. People familiar with the area will recognize the name Almaden. All the Almaden names in the south bay originate from the New Almaden mercury mine, which was the most productive mercury mine in the U.S. The mine has since closed, becoming New Almaden Quicksilver County Park.

Drive around the hills of San Jose and you'll see plenty of streets with mercury or cinnabar in their names. The major newspaper in the region is the San Jose Mercury News, again named for the toxic metal.
posted by ryanrs at 1:42 PM on February 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

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