San Francisco diners can now get their seafood fix. Bay-area fishermen started returning to local waters last weekend for the first time since California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger instituted a fishing and crabbing ban following a Nov. 7 fuel spill in San Francisco Bay, which limited many area restaurants that specialize in local offerings. The ban was lifted Nov. 29 after the California Environmental Protection Agency concluded that consumption of local seafood, other than some mollusks, posed insignificant health risks.
Mark Sullivan, executive chef at Spruce Restaurant in San Francisco, welcomed the return of local seafood to his menu. "I think the local crab is better [than what we brought in from elsewhere]. I notice the difference. I feel good about the [safety of the] crab. I'll stay away from local oysters, mussels and clams," he said.
The fishing ban was instated after a container ship en route from Oakland to Korea struck a support tower of the Bay Bridge, spilling 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel. State officials tested for contaminants in local fish, focusing on the levels of bunker fuel carcinogens. Dungeness crab, red rock crab, herring and perch contained trace or undetectable levels, while some local mussels were contaminated (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers one additional cancer case per 10,000 people the maximum acceptable carcinogen level, assuming one 8-oz. portion weekly for 30 years).
About 5 million pounds of local Dungeness crab are pulled in each year, sold wholesale at about $2 per pound. Prices during the past two weeks, prices hit $5 per pound, and only a fraction of the normal haul had been brought in.
"The question is how long it will take people to start eating the local crab," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. The fuel spill has already cost local fishermen millions of dollars, said Grader, but he cannot yet estimate a more precise figure.
The fishing ban had only covered an area relatively close to the spill site, but local fishermen had agreed to refrain from working a larger swath of local waters until test results confirmed that the fish and crabs were safe for consumption. They've now got the results they wanted for this season, but there's also concern about the long-term impacts on wild fish that use Bay-area coastlines as nurseries, and that migrate through local waters. "I was testifying at the California Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, and the question is assuring that the money and materials will be there for the next 10 years to look at the long-term impact," said Grader.
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