Half Moon Bay fishermen sell fish from the boat at Pillar Point Harbor
It could have gone either way, as the first steps of the tango started with the sudden hum of my reel. The salmon was not going quietly.
The dance began in earnest when my fishing buddies shouted instructions, “Reel slowly. Let the line out. COIL. ”We finally got a mouthwatering piece that stretched 22 inches long and weighed 3 ½ pounds.
A taste awakening followed that distant evening with the earthy but otherworldly flesh of grilled salmon to hibachi tenderly sliding from the fork as if casually undressing.
Foodies who walk the docks of Pillar Point Harbor on fall weekends know what I’m talking about. They endure the clogged arteries of Half Moon Bay during pumpkin season in search of regional seafood delicacies such as salmon, halibut, and an assortment of rockfish. These sea-loving epicureans are part of the Bay Area’s growing patronage of locally sourced foods that vendors are promoting as a path to sustainability.
But let’s be realistic. Customers browse fisherman’s websites or call the Pillar Point Harbor Master hotline (650-726-8724) to see who is selling at which anchorage for one reason and one reason.
People are there for fish that haven’t changed hands half a dozen times before they reach the queue.
“There is no bad taste. There’s no foul smell, ”said charter boat owner Tom Mattusch, San Mateo County Port District Commissioner. “And it’s not your imagination.”
It would be much easier to browse the fish counters at Whole Foods, Safeway, or a local wholesaler, especially when there is no sushi chef filleting skills.
But every savvy shopper knows that freshness takes precedence over convenience. They keep tabs on Fishline (fishlineapp.com), where the hands of the boats report their water transport, price per pound, and arrival times. Weekend tourists quickly get hooked. The harbor master posts the inventory on a sign at the foot of Johnson Pier on Saturday morning, when the beating heart of the docks quickens with the prospect of a feast dinner. Passers-by on the pier above can scan the dozen boats hawking fish on the sales dock to see what piques their interest.
The market has grown since the Army Corps of Engineers completed the Princeton-by-the-Sea breakwater in 1961. Docks and slipways followed over the next two decades to develop a thriving port for the Coastsiders. And a checkerboard community has been formed around the 369 berths in the port.
The cards are home to business ventures like the Fourth Generation Trawlers who own Morning Star Fisheries and a newcomer to the line and hook named Zach Hassan. There are sport fishing boats, pleasure boats and everything in between. This included the intrepid gull holding a good-sized groundfish in its beak on a recent summer evening at Wharf G.
Commercial trawlers catch groundfish at least three miles from shore. Purse seiners use nets closer to the surface, while traditionalists fish as the Egyptians did in 3500 BCE – with hooks and lines.
Whichever system is used, fishermen follow the natural rhythms of the sea – and government regulations – to catch what’s in season.
Nothing causes a greater fuss than the Dungeness Crab in late fall when impatient customers line the docks like heading to the DMV. The crustacean has joined the turkeys as a staple of the Bay Area of the holiday dinner table.
“All crab pots are like little banks of money that you just pull out and empty the money,” Hassan said.
Weekend dockside sales have become essential to the survival of fishermen like Hassan. Small boats don’t catch enough to supply wholesalers, so they bypass the supply chain for direct sales.
On a recent Saturday, banners greeted potential buyers advertising wild king salmon, live rock crab and black cod. Hassan’s flag whetted appetites with a “Fish Tacos” proclamation that prompted a woman to inquire about buying some for lunch.
Hassan, the owner of Captain Jack, patiently explained how the rockfish he had on the ice would make ideal ingredients for tacos. The passer-by seemed disappointed at the idea of gutting and filleting the fish before stuffing portions into a tortilla.
Regulars like Fremont’s John and Rimiko Prior were more intentional. The Priors are receiving email alerts from John Schulz and his partner Gretchen Vogel of the New Krabmandu lobster boat.
Once, said John Prior, he spent almost $ 400 on crab. On a recent trip, he and his wife bought two meaty halibut, one for their family, the other for a neighbor.
Transactions like this continued along the labyrinth of the docks for much of a foggy morning, as a collection of old salts, apparently sent from the central casting, instructed patrons on the best way to prepare the fish.
The more I hung around their boats, the more they sounded like alchemists and epistemologists. Chris Pedersen, who sold large Chinook Salmon from the Ocean Warrior over the weekend, spoke of learning the trade from his great-grandfather while growing up on the Oregon coast. He said he has fished almost every corner of the planet. Pedersen, 62, couldn’t imagine a better lifestyle.
“I feel safer on the ocean, because it’s me, God and the sea,” he said.
Hassan, 20, embodies the fiercely independent streak of the inhabitants of the wharf. He dropped out of high school in Alameda at the age of 16 and eventually joined the albacore tuna fleets in Oregon and Washington. Hassan returned to the Bay Area to help his mother, a lung cancer survivor. Here he joined a sport fishing team and learned the intricacies of fishing.
Hassan raised enough money in January to purchase a Vietnam-era US Navy river patrol boat in Santa Barbara. The business almost ended before the first harvest.
The angry winter seas churned and the wind howled as he and a crew member made their way to Half Moon Bay. At one point, they tried to dock at Avila Beach to refuel. The lines did not hold. The boom collapsed and a fuel line ruptured, causing the deck to foam up with a burst of oil. Then a 15-foot wave erupted on the port side after they left Avila. Hassan thought they were heading “over the falls” towards their certain demise. But Captain Jack and his fiberglass proved to be navigable when they returned home.
Since the maiden voyage, Hassan had been religiously monitoring the weather the rest of the winter. “Some people go to Facebook or Instagram,” he said. “For me, it’s just a matter of constantly looking at the weather app.”
Lisa Damrosch and her brother Geoff Bettencourt represent another part of the fleet with Morning Star Fisheries and the trawler Miss Moriah.
They have a processing plant at the end of Johnson Pier that the siblings plan to someday supply to local restaurants with freshly caught seafood right outside their doors. For now, popular Half Moon Bay haunts are buying from a complicated supply chain that decreases the chances of serving locally caught wild fish, fishermen say.
Bettencourt no longer fishes like his grandfather and his father, because it is no longer feasible. The groundfish fishery, which includes more than 90 species such as sole, flounder and cod, collapsed in 2000. Government officials banned the harvest, saying it would take a century to restore the fishery. .
But in one of the sea’s welfare stories, innovative fishing techniques and gear, coupled with the conservation efforts of trawlers like Bettencourt, have led to a rapid resurgence.
Morning Star sells primarily to wholesalers. But the owners have launched a home delivery service from Pacifica to Half Moon Bay during the COVID-19 shutdown to help their community. They also have an occasional pop-up market on the pier.
While searching the quays on a quiet Tuesday, I happened to take possession of two soles from Petrale, both as plump as stuffed pierogi. I rushed out of the port parking lot with my prizes to begin cleaning preparations before the gut bacteria could extract the freshness.
The first fish slipped through my hands and down the sink in what looked like a mud wrestling match. I turned to YouTube (where else?) For help. I didn’t have any of the filleting and gutting tools the cook used. Improvisation was going to reign.
A basic cheese grater has become a fish scaler. A sturdy stainless steel knife served as both a kitchen scissors and a scalloped net cutter.
My work left the fish as if they had been ravaged by a deranged cat. So as not to be discouraged, I kept Damrosch’s words in mind.
“Rockfish should be like chicken,” she said. “It’s bulletproof: you can cook it 52 different ways. “
I grilled the sole with red baby potatoes, sweet and green onions, mushrooms and zucchini. I brushed everything with a dim sum sauce.
The first puff bite sent inundated memories of the long forgotten salmon that first sent me on a tongue tingling ride. This time the trawls trapped the creature instead of the proven rod and reel method.
The how didn’t matter at the moment. Not when such a fresh fish beckoned for another hasty trip to the docks.