Sea Change

fishermans wharf san francisco
Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. Photo: Nicola Parisi

From Dungeness crab and king salmon, to abalone and uni, warmer waters are impacting our local catch.


Not many locals venture down to Fisherman’s Wharf anymore, but push past the throngs of tourists and segway guides, the menu deals and t-shirts and trinkets, and the fishing boats that make up San Francisco’s local fleet are still standing tall, having called this historic port home for more than a century. In the early morning, banked in fog and besieged by swooping gulls and barking sea lions, they unload the legendary local catch, destined for markets and restaurants across the city—from classic seafood houses serving garlicky cioppino and crispy sand dabs to omakase counters and fine dining stars setting out single spoonfuls of buttery uni and thinly pounded slices of abalone.

But while San Francisco’s seafood tradition runs deep, the menu has ineluctably changed in the last few years. First, king salmon was decimated by recent droughts when rivers ran low and hot. Next, oysters struggled to grow shells in bays growing warmer and more acidic. Then Dungeness crab missed Thanksgiving, and didn’t even make it home for Christmas, when seasons were cut short due to toxin scares and whales tangled in nets.

Across species and seasons, there’s no one single snag, and trying to trace a pattern of what’s happening to our local fish presents a complex net of issues, from weather cycles to fishing regulations. The question: Are these struggles simply anomalies, or the foretelling of a deeper sea change—the first effects of global warming?

“Climate change in California is different than in other areas, because we live in such a dynamic system,” explains Andre Boustany, a marine biologist who researches fish and fisheries at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The facts on global climate change are clear. The ocean covers 70 percent of the earth’s surface. It absorbs 90 percent of the heat and 30 percent of the carbon dioxide caused by humans. It is incrementally becoming warmer and more acidic, while decreasing in oxygen levels, already putting many sea creatures at risk. Zooming in on California, that plays out across 1,100 miles of rugged coastline, criss-crossed by a rich network of bays and rivers, from the salmon that migrate up the Sacramento River, to the oysters that grow in Tomales Bay.

A certain amount of temperature change is expected and normal, with recognized weather patterns by year, such as El Niño and La Niña, and fluctuating currents from the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which cycles through warm phases and cold phases over several decades. “Along the coast, we’re used to acute cycles and changes. You have to be very careful to distinguish that from climate change, which is long-term and one-directional,” Boustany explains. “That said, many people think climate change is a slow warming over time, a tenth of a degree in a decade, one degree in a century. But right now, we’re seeing massive changes and fast shifts. It seems like the only thing we can predict is the unpredictable.”

“I don’t have all the answers,” Boustany disclaims. It’s a refrain heard over and over again in the fishing industry. Every single expert interviewed for this story echoed the same sentiment. However, there are smart scientists, fishermen, shellfish farmers, and fishmongers, who are asking good questions. Casting a broader net and looking across species and seasons, these key issues are currently impacting our local catch, and warmer waters might be changing the menu in San Francisco.

sarah bates on her boat, the Bounty
Sarah Bates on her boat, the Bounty, at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Photo: Bruce Cole

The King of Salmon 

California king salmon is rich in fat, with white marbling running through wild orange flesh that breaks into lush, juicy flakes when pierced with a fork. Sarah Bates is the captain of the Bounty, a trolling boat she docks in San Francisco and slips out under the Golden Gate Bridge to chase the king up and down the coastline. She fell in love with this wild food and bought her boat in 2006, which proved a precipitous moment to join the fleet. As a migratory fish that travels from rivers to oceans and back again, salmon faces a double threat: Primarily, from the drought drying up rivers, and potentially, more acid in the ocean eating away at its food sources.

First, recent droughts decimated salmon populations, when rivers ran low and hot. “There’s no doubt about it—salmon need clean, cold water that runs to the ocean,” says Bates. “You need enough water to get adult fish up the river, keep those eggs cold, and wash the young fish back out to sea.” As returning populations dwindled, the 2008 and 2009 seasons were completely closed. In 2014 and 2015, 95 percent of eggs were killed by water released from Shasta Dam that was as warm as 76°F (salmon eggs can’t survive over 56°F). Salmon have a three-year life cycle, so a couple of rocky years is enough to endanger it. Worse, water from the spawning grounds of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta is diverted into big agriculture in the Central Valley. That pits farmers who want water for crops against fishermen who need water for salmon, in a snarl of political issues.

Unexpectedly, last year was a good haul for salmon, beating modest expectations: initial reports from fishermen say it may be the best year in a decade. But beyond the rivers, looking out to the ocean, the long view is uneasy. Salmon munch on plankton, insects, and small fish. With waters warming and becoming more acidic, plankton are already on the move north, putting the bottom of the food chain at risk. Of all the species we might potentially be losing, “[s]almon is one of the most concerning,” from the science perspective, says Boustany. “We’re already at the southern extent of their range. Ocean survival depends on ocean productivity, and if there are decreased nutrients or fewer food sources in the future, the question is where they’ll move or how they’ll fare.”

Cracking Crab Traditions

Dungeness crab has jagged white-tipped claws, which diners crack open to release big lumps of sweet meat. Historically, the commercial crabbing season opens in mid November, which means crab has a special place on holiday tables, and has become a longstanding tradition on Thanksgiving and Christmas. “We have the sweetest crab in the world, just like we have the best salmon in the world,” crows Larry Collins, head of the SF Community Fishing Association, a salty fisherman who’s hauled crustaceans into Fisherman’s Wharf for 35 years. Like many captains, he worked the classic combo of king salmon in the summer and Dungeness crab in the winter. Salmon used to make his year, he estimates at 70 percent of his living, while crab just saw him through the winter. But as salmon disappeared, crab became crucial, flipping the balance. Until it started to show up late to the party.

First, warmer waters led to an algae bloom that released domoic acid, a neurotoxin absorbed by crabs. Unfortunately for the humans who love to eat them, poisoning doesn’t just result in an upset stomach—at its most extreme, it can mean memory loss, coma, and death. In 2015, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife cancelled the commercial crab season entirely, when a “warm blob” of water floating in the Pacific moved in towards the coastline. There have been acid scares every year since, and four out of the past five seasons have suffered delays. Rigorous testing for domoic acid is in place to protect crab-eaters from outbreaks.

But now, seasons are cut short for a different reason: Whales are changing their migration patterns and getting tangled in nets. Both the algae blooms and whale presence are related to temperature, but Boustany clarifies this may have nothing to do with climate change. “Crab is a prime example of what happens when we switch over from a warm cycle into a cold cycle,” he says. “The cold cycle favors anchovies, anchovies tend to be closer to the shore, and that pulls whales closer to crabbing nets.” The irony is that for the next few decades, the outlook for cold, clean crab free of toxins is sparkling—provided fishermen are allowed to catch them. “There’s going to be crab, it just depends how the politics work out,” says Collins. “We’re working with the lightest touch we possibly can, using hooks and traps, just like we have for a hundred years.”

The Sweetest Oysters

When it comes to oysters, the best of the West are small and sweet, cupped in deep shells with fluted edges, and prized for bracing briny flavor with a full finish. Fans might be surprised they’re not native: Olympia oysters originally lined San Francisco Bay, but they were overharvested during the Gold Rush, and they’ve only been reintroduced recently (for filtering water—you can’t slurp one just yet). These days, California farmers commonly grow Pacific and Kumamoto oysters, originally brought over from Japan. But now, “We’re embarking on a big science experiment,” says John Finger from Hog Island Oyster Co. “Climate change isn’t a theory. It’s happening. We’re seeing it. Oysters, as filter feeders, are the first indicators of what’s happening in our bays and oceans.”

Hog Island grows nearly three million oysters a year at their farm in Tomales Bay. While the appetite for local oysters seems insatiable, the future is murky. We see the impact of climate change the most clearly and quickly with oysters, because warmer waters tend to be more acidic, which slows the growth of shell-forming creatures. Oysters need calcium carbonate in order to form shells. The more energy they have to spend, the more brittle they grow, and the more susceptible they become to disease. Finger first felt ripples in 2007 and 2008. At that time, Hog Island just had the farm, and was sourcing seeds from hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest, until a couple of crashes wiped out those fledgling oysters two years in a row. Finger estimates they lost a third of their yield, meaning a million oysters a year. Instead of expanding the farm, as originally hoped, they established a nursery and hatchery to protect the entire lifecycle. “We can no longer put all of our seeds in one basket,” he says. “We need more hatcheries up and down the West Coast. It’s an insurance policy.”

Today, Hog Island relies on research scientists who closely monitoring the seawater. If pH levels start dropping, they step in with more interventions: adding crushed oyster shells to their water or letting less seawater into their system. They watch the ocean because increased winds and upwelling bring up water with less oxygen and more acid, and they worry about heavier rains and runoff from the roads because fresh water flushes in more acid. Then they try to fathom how it all swirls together in their mini ecosystems in Humboldt Bay and Tomales Bay. “The thing is, species can adapt if they have time.” says Finger, who was a marine biologist before becoming a bivalve farmer. “We believe in diversity and resilience, and we’re doing our best to stay ahead, but the rate of change is faster than initial models ever told us would happen. It behooves all of us to slow down this rate of change.”

Ground Fish Swell, Schooling Fish Scatter

Salmon, crab and oysters might be the holy trinity of seafood in San Francisco, but other fish have slipped on and off our local menus over the years. Ground fish are another local delicacy that were overfished and unavailable for a long time but are now coming back in strong numbers. Sand dabs have been on the menu at the old-school seafood restaurants such as Tadich Grill for more than a hundred and fifty years, as well as petrale sole, rockfish, and black cod. “I still catch a lot of dabs, and the buyers fight over them,” says Steve Fitz. “Walk into any restaurant where the chef knows what he’s doing, and popped right off the bone, they are the sweetest, most succulent fish you will ever have.”

Ground fish aren’t struggling with climate change, so much as recovering from overfishing. The fishery crashed in 2002, when hundreds of thousands of miles were closed. But it made an incredible comeback, moving off the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “avoid” list by 2014, and recently hailed by the Associated Press as a “rare conservation home run.” Fitz is the captain of the Mr. Morgan out of Half Moon Bay, which he says is the only Scottish seine equipped vessel in the US, a method that uses a circle of light rope to tickle through the mud of the ocean floor, herding fish to the surface. But he’s quick to defend his colleagues, who have partnered with the Nature Conservancy to improve trawling practices. “People think draggers are the rapers and pillagers of the ocean, but it’s the furthest from the truth,” he insists. “We’ve worked so hard to clean up this industry, and keep our fish healthy and plentiful.”

Meanwhile, small schooling fish tend to scatter, swap places and pop back up. “Sardines are out, anchovies are in,” Boustany predicts. Sardines, the historic catch of Cannery Row, have been closed for five years, as the population dropped 98 percent, NOAA estimates. But sardines also famously “crashed” in the 1960s, and unexpectedly came back in what turned out to be a natural cycle. Herring is unique because it was the last fishery inside San Francisco Bay. It boomed in the 1980s, when fishermen made their fortunes shipping the bright yellow roe to Japan, and in 2012, Edible San Francisco featured Ernie Koepf, a fishermen hoping to revive the local tradition. But when the blob of warm water struck in 2014, the population tanked.

Squid might also be scattering. Monterey has dubbed itself the “calamari capital of the world,” pulling in millions of pounds every year. “Squid used to be something we could count on fresh all year round,” says Kenny Belov of Fish restaurant and TwoXSea wholesale. “But the gaps are getting larger and more frequent, when we have to rely on frozen. And the squid seem smaller, falling through the grates of the grill.” Squid are tolerant of high heat and low-oxygen water conditions, competitive advantages for climate change. But they dodge warm weather events, Boustany says, and seem to be expanding in their range. During the blob, squid swam north as far as Oregon and Alaska. Meanwhile, jumbo squid have mysteriously disappeared from Monterey Bay.

The Purple Urchin Invasion

Beyond the big catches, there are also small and special creatures, coveted by chefs and diners: uni as briny as the ocean and as luscious as butter, abalone pried off rocks and pounded thin, and beautiful spot prawns still twitching their slender and striated legs. Abalone, which was once so plentiful it could be plucked from rocks, is sadly no longer harvested, and only available through farms—even rec divers have been banned until at least 2021.

What’s happened with uni is maybe the wildest story of all. It reads like science fiction: A disease wiped out a starfish, which was the natural predator of the purple sea urchin, resulting in hordes of hungry urchins ravaging our kelp forests. Ninety percent of the kelp forests in Northern California have been destroyed, and the purple sea urchins are now rampaging up off the coast of Oregon, where one study found 350 million on a single reef. Unfortunately, unlike red sea urchins, which are full of delicious uni (sometimes called roe, but actually the animal’s gonads), purple sea urchins are starving and nearly hollow inside. Scientists are scrambling to find solutions, such as sending divers down with vacuums, sucking urchins into tanks, and trying to fatten them up for ranching and eating.

Here, Boustany takes a deep breath. “If you’d asked me 50 years ago, what’s going to happen to abalone, we only would have been talking about temperature,” he says. “We couldn’t have imagined a sea star disease impacting urchin, impacting kelp, impacting abalone. From a scientific perspective, that’s more concerning. If you know something is slowly moving in a negative direction, at least you can prepare for it. But when you have these big erratic swings, within a short couple of years, it’s almost unpredictable.”

Rewriting the Daily Catch

Between global warming, weather cycles, and delayed or canceled seasons, one thing is clear: unpredictable is the new normal. In the United States, 80 percent of our seafood is imported, and about half of the world’s seafood comes from aquaculture, NOAA estimates. Sarah Bates worries that as wild catches become smaller and more erratic, eaters will get even more used to cheap farmed fish. Of course, our local oysters are already farmed, and more and more shellfish will be farmed, Boustany predicts. Farms like Hog Island have teamed up to form a Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition, and they’re racing to find solutions, which means more management and interventions.

Ground fish are the light in the dark, and should stay on the menu, in one form or another. “From a food perspective, the thing about rockfish is they’re almost all interchangeable,” says Boustany. “We may get a different mix of species, but people will still have white, flaky fillets on their plates.” And if schooling fish and squid scatter, and rarities like uni and abalone become more rare, we’ll have to catch those when we can.

But this is San Francisco, and we still have people working against the elements to bring in the local catch, and markets and restaurants trying to tell those deeper stories. Kenny Belov opened Fish in Sausalito, one of the first sustainable seafood restaurants in the Bay Area, before founding TwoXSea, a transparent wholesale business. “I had a short list of questions: Who caught the fish, where did they catch it, what gear did they use, and was it on purpose.” Now, he supplies restaurants across the city, and collaborates with chefs who are willing to adjust the menu.

Out in the Sunset, Hook Fish Co is picking up the same line. A couple of surfer dudes who wanted to live near the ocean founded a small fish market and restaurant with delicious fish tacos. They insist on traceability and post the daily menu, the name of the boat, and where the item was caught.

Signing up for a CSF box, filled with fish instead of veggies, is another way to support what’s available and in season. Kirk Lombard of Sea Forager started out by giving foraging tours, teaching people how to lure monkeyface eels out from under rocks and toss hand nets for herring. But when fans kept asking where to buy fish, he started a weekly subscription. 

“You’d be surprised,” says Beau Caillouette from Hook Fish, while scanning a case full of Dungeness crab on a foggy winter night. “No one comes in asking for tilapia. There’s a big appetite for local, seasonal species. San Franciscans know the bounty of king in summer, they want crab for Christmas, they love our local oysters from Tomales Bay. Our customers are well informed. They ask good questions.”