Fish sold right from the boat: The old ways resurface – San Francisco Chronicle
Third-generation fisherman Giuseppe “Joe” Pennisi is trying something that goes against the status quo at Fisherman’s Wharf: to get more fresh, local fish into San Francisco — and, at the same time, to divert more of the profit to local fishers like himself.
Pennisi, 52, began selling his fish directly a few weeks ago, after obtaining a fish receiver’s license from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and is one of two local fishermen to do so. He said the move keeps him in business and could eventually enable him, and perhaps others, to sell directly to the public — if the port and the city allow it.
“San Francisco is definitely sucking up my fish,” he said. The fisherman operated a hoist to unload rockfish and sand dabs from his boat, the Pioneer, which he transformed into a fish market by welding together massive steel bars for a new crane and reviving a rattly old ice maker. He’s sold over 80,000 pounds of fish in the past three weeks, and his list of customers is growing.
Like his Sicilian immigrant grandfather, Pennisi is a trawl fisherman, one of the last in San Francisco. Environmental regulations on trawl fishing, which uses a dragnet to catch deeper-dwelling species like rockfish, mean strictly enforced quotas and high costs for the fishers. Since local distributors don’t pay enough to make a fishing trip worthwhile, Pennisi said, he has previously sent his fish to China.
“I was so frustrated. Why was my fish going to China?” said Pennisi, upset by the irony of having to send his fish abroad while Bay Area seafood distributors bring in so much foreign fish. “Here I am, tied to the dock and looking at all these local fish markets, and no one could buy my fish.”
But after two years of working out the new arrangement with harbormaster Anita Yao and Scoma’s restaurant on Pier 47, he now can make a bigger cut and is getting more local fish to Bay Area diners and home cooks.
Fishers and fish receivers, including the eight or so seafood companies on Pier 45, have not been allowed to sell to the public since a brief period from 1999 to 2000. The resolution to allow direct sales wasn’t renewed by the port because no one requested it, as it didn’t turn out to be commercially viable for fishers, said Renée Dunn Martin, communications director for the Port of San Francisco.
But the agency isn’t opposed to resuming it now and has been in talks with various state and city agencies to resume the practice, Martin said. It’s also planning a public meeting to discuss the issue, because some restaurant owners and fish processors have mentioned opposition.
“It’s definitely really disruptive to the industry,” said Charlie Lambert of Ocean2Table, a Santa Cruz fish company that buys from Pennisi and is helping him work with buyers. “In many ways, if more fishermen start taking this kind of example and doing this, then it really eliminates a really huge income source” for the distributors.
Lambert was on hand while Pennisi unloaded rose fish, a type of rockfish, to his waiting crew on the pier, who sorted the small, pink-red fish from the gray ice surrounding it. Pennisi remembers helping butcher rose fish when he was 12 for his father’s Monterey seafood company.
“Because no one has been fishing these, no one here has seen these in 15 years,” he said, over the bark of a hovering sea lion. “We’re slowly reintroducing them to the market.”
It won’t be all that easy to do.
Pennisi mostly targets chilipepper rockfish (Sebastes goodei), often labeled red snapper. In California, chilipepper and many other types of rockfish have had strict fishing limits since the mid-’90s, after two decades of intensive fishing took a toll on their population.
That’s why an armed officer from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration waited in an SUV on the pier while the Pioneer’s crew unloaded the boat, and later climbed on board to inspect it.
That’s also why observer Deborah Shelton had gone along for the fishing trip to monitor bycatch for NOAA and stayed to check that each species was sorted correctly and weighed as it came off the boat. Her employer would later send the numbers to the federal government.
“The scientists use that to set up future quotas,” said Shelton.
Pennisi pays all observer fees, which he said can add up to $4,000 a trip. With fuel, labor and ice costs, that means he could lose money fishing before being able to sell directly.
Whether or not Pennisi can make it economically, many environmentalists object to his particular type of fishing. Trawl boats often use heavy nets that drag the ocean floor, degrading habitats, and result in a lot of unintended bycatch. However, Pennisi mitigates those issues by using lighter nets and a series of Go-Pro cameras that have shown surprisingly no noticeable disturbance to the sea floor, said Lambert, who worked as a field biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife before becoming a fishmonger. Pennisi also uses specialized netting that allows smaller, younger fish to escape.
“Giuseppe is doing a lot of amazing work that can have a major impact on the trawl fishery as a whole, perhaps even globally, which is why we’ve chosen to work with him,” said Lambert.
Still at the hoist, Pennisi checked in with his wife, who was taking their kids to school back home in Chico. Thanks to the epic commute, he often sleeps on the boat between fishing trips, getting ready for the next new customers.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “But everybody likes it because it’s so fresh.”