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San Francisco Fishing Ban Restricts the Menu

After an early November oil spill near San Francisco, area chefs are leaning less on local ingredients

Daniel Sogg
Posted: November 27, 2007

Local seafood is in short supply in the San Francisco area following a fuel spill that occurred Nov. 7 in the Bay. Bay-area restaurateurs expect an ongoing impact on the availability of local fish, but the timing is especially inopportune for fishermen, restaurateurs and foodies because Dungeness crab season had been scheduled to begin on Nov. 15. The crabs are wildly popular in the Bay area—fishermen catch about 5 million pounds a year in local waters.

"For some people, the crabs are as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "We're especially concerned about the crabs, because most of them are caught in the first two weeks or month of the season."

The accident took place when a 810-foot container ship en route from Oakland, Calif., to Korea struck a concrete support tower of the Bay Bridge. An estimated 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel spilled into the Bay from a 160-foot gash in the hull. Cleanup crews and vessels have recovered about one-third of the fuel oil, some of which has washed up on coastlines in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. More than 25 beaches have been affected, and more than a dozen remain closed. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency and has banned fishing near the spill site until Dec. 1, when the California Department of Fish and Game and the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response will reassess the severity of contamination.

Paul Johnson, owner of San Francisco-based Monterey Fish Market, sells to 100 Bay-area restaurants, including Chez Panisse, Quince and Aqua. At this point in a typical season, he'd have bought about 5,000 pounds of crabs. This year he's only bought a total of 1,000 pounds from Washington State fishermen and fishermen based in Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay. His cost per pound is $5, rather than the $2 a pound he paid last year. "There's a lot of hesitation [from buyers]," he said. "People are concerned about the healthfulness of the situation. In all honesty, my speculation is that this concern has spilled over to all the local seafood, but it's fine."

Other types of seafood, such as oysters, have been affected by the spill, but many fishermen and restaurateurs are most concerned about potential long-term consequences. San Francisco-area coastlines serve as nurseries for several species of wild fish. Other species pass through the Bay as part of their migratory patterns. "There are lots of baby fish, like sardines, salmon, striped bass, that were born in the spring, swim very close to the coast and those fish get poisoned. That's going to be a problem for next year [when the fish may be caught] and that's what we need to be worried about," said Laurent Manrique, chef at San Francisco's Aqua restaurant, which focuses on seafood.

Manrique emphasized that Bay-area chefs do not typically depend exclusively on local fish. Species such as skate, sushi-grade blue fin tuna and flounder come primarily from the East Coast. Nevertheless, Manrique has already fielded questions from diners concerned about the impact of the spill. "I explained that it's alright, that the crab and oysters on the menu are from other [West Coast] areas," he said.

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