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Fraser remembers the 1980s with the wistful sense of longing familiar to many fishermen of his age. He cites the fall of 1983, when schools of adult sturgeon gathered in the coves along the Tiburon Peninsula shoreline. One day, Fraser stood by in his own boat watching as party boats took turns anchoring and pulling in rapid limits of the fish for their customers.
"It made me sick," he said. "It's like they had no consideration of the future. Those were the good old days and you're not going to see them again."
But Marty Gingras, a biologist and sturgeon expert with the Department of Fish and Game, says the huge spike, then crash, in fishing success in the decade after sturgeon was first legalized "is a sign of overfishing."
Today, the fishery is more tightly controlled than ever, with a three-fish yearly limit per licensed angler, and Gingras says the ups and downs of the population may be a natural fluctuation. If department data tells a clear story, sturgeon populations are strongly influenced by rainfall. Sturgeon do not spawn every year, Gingras explains. Large females may spawn less than once per decade and their most successful spawning events occur during or immediately after seasons of tremendous rains and floods, events that far surpass any amount of water that water pumps may draw from the river. In the 1970s, large winter floods facilitated successful spawning that led to the abundance of adults in the 1980s that Smith and Fraser remember so vividly.
"Then, in the 1990s, there weren't a lot of sturgeon caught," Gingras said. The drought of the 1980s was likely the reason, he said. Currently, 22-inch sturgeon are abundant, the progeny of a rainy 2006, and 4-footers are also present in big numbers — fish that were born during the high natural flow years of 1996 and 1997. Sturgeon grow very slowly, and in time, Gingras says, another era of sturgeon fishing glory days may arrive.
Wholesaler Kenny Belov believes that one key to the restoration of Bay Area fisheries is smart fishery management and stewardship. Two weeks ago, Belov bought his first swordfish of the season, a fish taken in Southern California by a fisherman he knows personally.
"It was harpooned," said Belov, who launched a wholesale seafood-vending business in 2009 called TwoXSea and now sells nothing but well-sourced, traceable seafood to Bay Area restaurants. "I only sell harpooned swordfish. I sent out an e-mail to tell my clients, and that day it was gone. The next morning at two I got up and checked my e-mail, and I had messages from chefs saying, 'Hey, I'll take 15 pounds.' 'I'll take 40.' 'I'll take 10.' And I had to say, 'Sorry, it's gone.' A normal seller would have said, 'Okay, let me call the wharf and see if there's a longliner or driftnetter with anything for you."
Belov rarely buys netted fish of any kind and prefers those caught on hook, line, rod, and reel. For swordfish, the cleanest means of take with virtually zero bycatch or waste is harpoon fishing. Belov also says he personally knows the fishermen he buys from, and Belov in turn sells directly to restaurants, including Revival Bar and Kitchen in Berkeley. In doing so, he cuts out the long chain of buyers and distributors that handle most seafood as it moves from the sea to the kitchen. Belov's intention is to increase transparency and eliminate any uncertainty about a fish's origins.
"The way I do business, if the restaurant has any doubt about how or where the fish was caught, we can take out a cell phone and call the boat that it came from," Belov said. "Everything I sell is certifiable, traceable and honest. I am only buying fish directly from fishermen. In all cases I have seen the boat, been on the boat, seen the gear they use to fish, and in most cases I have also fished on the boat."
Distinctions must be made between, say, albacore tuna caught on rod and reel and those caught on longlines, or drifting rigs miles long and bearing thousands of baited hooks. Distinctions, Belov says, must also be made between rockfish caught with single baited hooks and those raked from the reefs in massive drag, or trawl, nets. Belov knows just two local boats — both in Bolinas — from which he might buy rockfish. Due to complicated restrictions and regulations, though, they haven't bothered to fish rockfish in two years. Instead of turning to other vessels that may use unsustainable practices to maintain a constant supply of rockfish, Belov simply goes without.
"I tell people, 'Sorry, we don't sell longlined rockfish so we can't get you any right now.'"
Belov says he knows of restaurants that will provide customers with misinformation in order to conceal particular details about a fish's origin, such as how or where it was caught or even what species of fish it is. Rockfishes, which consist of more than fifty species in the genus Sebastes, are often served simply as "cod" or "snapper."
"Places like that are scared to put 'yelloweye rockfish' tacos on their menu," Belov said. "They'd much rather say 'local cod' or 'Pacific cod' tacos. Those are the names that sell. It's marketing 101. But I'm not interested in running a business of telling lies. If I don't have it, it's because I don't know what it is or where it came from."