The Race Is on to Find the Next Sustainable Superstar Seafood

When it comes to seafood harvested off the California coast, what’s familiar may not be sustainable.
May 12, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
kirk lombard-sea forager
Courtesy of Kirk Lombard

“There is no more normal in California,” says Kenny Belov, the owner of Two X Sea, a seafood restaurant and wholesaler on San Francisco’s waterfront. He’s not talking about the state’s wildfires or housing prices—although he certainly could be. Instead he means California fish: “People will drop their gear in the water, but there is no guarantee that they will bring something up.”

When it comes to seafood harvested from the Pacific Ocean, what’s familiar may not be sustainable. And what’s sustainable may not have mass appeal. But thanks to a determined group of fishermen, purveyors, and foragers in California, that may be changing. It just may not be changing fast enough.

Thanks to human activity, the water off of California’s coast is warming. Last August, the surface of the sea surface off San Diego reached the highest temperature ever recorded. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, average sea surface temperatures on California’s Pacific coast rose a degree to a degree and a half Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century.

Climate change has already pummeled an industry that reached $196 million in revenue in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. In 2015, an outbreak of toxic algae that may thrive in warming waters triggered the closure of most of the year’s Dungeness crab season. Climate change is expected to cause moderate to severe declines in salmon populations across California and the Pacific Northwest. And the habitat of species like the spiny lobster has been pushed northward.

What's next-Finless Foods
General scene of commercial fishing boats in San Francisco Bay.The Washington Post/Getty Images
Nick Otto—The Washington Post/Getty Images

To be sure, not every indicator is negative. In March, Christopher Free, a postdoctral scholar at the University of California,Santa Barbara was the lead author on a paper in Science that estimated the effect of climate change on fisheries. Although the global maximum sustainable yield dropped 4.1% from 1930 to 2010, the decrease was not evenly distributed. In the California Current, a Pacific Ocean current moving southward along the western coast of North America, Free tells me, “fish populations haven’t been strongly impacted by warming. It’s probably the result of good management.” For each of the species that Free and his coauthors analyzed—which included sardine, lingcod, and rockfish—the estimated effect of warming in California was statistically indistinguishable from zero.

But past successes do not guarantee future ones. For Belov, the problem is easy to state and hard to solve: “The things we want are the things we shouldn’t be eating.”

What to Eat Next

“It’s depressing. What do Americans eat? The number one seafood consumed in North America is shrimp,” adds Kirk Lombard, a friend of Belov and the founder of Sea Forager, which gives coastal walking tours and sells sustainable seafood.

For Lombard, the most sustainable seafood to eat live at the bottom of the food chain: ”The gospel of small fishes,” he says. It’s one thing to realize that wild salmon or bluefin tuna isn’t the most sustainable option. It’s quite another to convince consumer to substitute them with unfamiliar seafood like purple urchins, which tend not have the same amount of roe as their more commonly eaten cousins, or spiny lobsters, which lack the big claws that American eaters prize.

Sea Forager-California Sustainable Seafood
Kirk Lombard, founder of Sea ForagerCourtesy of Kirk Lombard
Courtesy of Kirk Lombard

Lombard proselytizes fishes like herring, which are plentiful in the San Francisco Bay, but not consumed here as they are in cities like Amsterdam, where the Dutch snack on them like hot dogs. But unlike legally-tolerated marijuana, that innovation has failed to catch on in the United States. In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, just $196 worth of herring was caught commercially in California—all of it in Los Angeles—while $14,884 worth of herring roe was harvested in San Francisco. Those are rounding errors compared to the state’s major fish industries. By contrast, market squid landings totaled $68 million in revenue, Dungeness crab $47 million, Chinook salmon $4.8 million, swordfish revenue totaled $3.9 million, and bigeye tuna $3.5 million.

California’s seafood, in other words, might as well swim in two different oceans, says Dave Colpo, senior program manager at the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. On the one side, there are industrial-scale trawlers that catch things like whiting and pollack destined for the freezer aisle and fast food sandwiches. “You can’t imagine how much gets pumped off those boats.” On the other are the mid-scale boats that fish for Dungeness crab and salmon, as well as the smaller outfits that catch everything else. “Urchin is not the McDonald’s of fish,” he says with a laugh.

Is Seaweed the Next Big Thing?

And if urchin is boutique, what does that make seaweed? For Catherine O’Hara, it’s the next big thing. In 2017, she and two other women founded Salt Point Seaweed, harvesting wild seaweed from the Mendocino Coast and selling it to restaurants and directly to consumers. They gather kombu, wakame, and nori—seaweeds that O’Hara thinks pass a tough test: “They’ve been around for long enough in mainstream culture that preschoolers are hooked on them.”

The numbers bear her out. In 2015, the most recent year for which the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has data available, the commercial edible algae harvest reached 27 metric tons. In 1997, when the state began keeping that data, the amount was less than five metric tons.

In addition to wild harvesting, O’Hara is exploring farmed seaweed. This year, she completed a pilot project with Hog Island Oyster Co. in Tomales Bay, in which she grew red algae similar to that served in poke bowls, alongside the cultivated oysters.

Turns out that farming the two species together can bring significant benefits. One of the big threats to shellfish from climate change is ocean acidification, the decrease in pH caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the water. When the water turns too acidic, it can eat away shells, killing oyster larvae before they develop.

Enter the seaweed. “Just like most plants on earth take out of the air, seaweed takes carbon and nitrogen out of the water,” says O’Hara. “In the water right now, there’s too much carbonic acid.” Over the last year, their experimental plot of seaweed pulled some of that carbon out of the water, lessening the damage to the oysters.

It’s an alternative model of how seafood might be harvested from the Pacific Ocean in the future. Now all that remains is to see whether consumers will catch up.