Sardines and Spanish mackerel caught by Captain Pete "the Greek" on the Sardella out of Half Moon Bay. Oysters from Grassy Bar, a family-owned and operated oyster bed on California's central coast. Skin-on ahi tuna caught off of Kauai by small-boat fishermen who use sustainable gear to catch their fish, then pack it in ice and drive the seafood to the airport to be sent to California.
If you have joined Sea Forager's uber-sustainable seafood subscription service, this was some of the ocean's bounty you received in recent weeks. The fish is not only fresh-from-the-boat quality, it comes to customers with full transparency about exactly how, when and where it was caught.
Sea Forager, which is based in San Francisco but delivers throughout the Bay Area, including to Palo Alto, Mountain View and Redwood City, epitomizes the sea-to-table spirit. Owner Kirk Lombard works with a network of fishermen -- mostly in the Bay Area -- who meet his high standards for sustainability. He aims to bring seafood to people who care about their food's origins but who might not have the time or access to get it.
The subscription model means that customers pick up a weekly or biweekly delivery from a set location. Midpeninsula outposts can be found in Redwood City and Palo Alto; local tech companies like Google, Facebook and Box also offer pickups to their employees.
For $24, you get enough fish for dinner for two, or $47 for four people. The basic "Slab" includes only fish fillets; the "Neptune's Delight" includes fillets or shellfish (mollusks or crustaceans), small whole fish or a combination of these. Customers can also add on special offerings each week depending on what's available. The packages come with recipes created by Lombard's wife, who calls herself the "Fishwife," and members get other benefits, such as access to local seafood events and half-off seafood foraging tours led by Lombard.
The company is home-grown. Lombard, a personable, slightly rough-around-the-edges East Coast native, has an eclectic background. He's a former actor who spent 14 years as an art teacher and counselor for emotionally disturbed kids in the Bay Area. He's also a writer, musician and father of two. Throughout several career "diversions" over the years, he has always loved to go fishing, he said in an interview at the water's edge on Pier 45 in San Francisco, surrounded by crab pots, fishing boats and warehouses.
Several years ago, Lombard left his job as an art teacher to pursue fishing full time. He started as a deckhand on a party boat out of Berkeley (and hated it), but met a biologist from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife who was tasked with checking all the fish species and explaining about them to the boat-goers. A self-described fish geek, Lombard immediately asked the biologist, "How do I get that job?"
It required a degree in marine biology, but the persistent, self-educated fisherman sent an email every day for six months to the biologist's boss with his own ocean observations and suggestions for how the department could use that information. He eventually wore her down, got hired and spent the next seven years as a fisheries observer for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. It was his job "to find out what the local citizenry was fishing for," he explains on the Sea Forager website.
"Onboard rockfish boats off the Farallones I counted rockfish; on the piers I checked herring, jacksmelt, stripers, pile perch; on the beaches I saw how surf and night smelt were captured; in the hidden coves I checked in on goose barnacle poachers (not because I had to, because I wanted to); in downtown San Francisco I watched homeless, drop-line-wielding grandmothers, pull rockfish after rockfish out of storm drains," he writes. "You want to get deep with this stuff? Talk to me."
Lombard's specialty then and now, he said, is "the things that are hidden in plain sight." He became skilled at catching monkeyface eels that live under rocks in the San Francisco Bay. He fished off a rare commercially registered kayak. He started blogging about his saltwater experiences, calling it the Monkeyface News.
Ever-resourceful, when he lost his job with Fish and Wildlife, he found a San Francisco foraging company and pitched them the idea of a seafood foraging class. It took off, got some media attention and he eventually left the foraging company to run his own tours -- talking about the history of the San Francisco Bay, its fish populations, pollution problems, sustainability and how to forage for your own seafood.
At the end of the tours, Lombard said what he frequently heard from participants was: This is really cool, but I have no time to scour the coast for my own smelt and eels.
"But if I want to know where my fish came from and I want to do the right thing as far as sourcing sustainably, where should I go?" he said people often asked him. "It just suddenly dawned on me after two years of doing those tours that I could be selling fish," he said.
Already well-embedded within the local fishing community, he had a natural base of fishermen to tap. He started what he said was, at the time, San Francisco's second Community Supported Fishery (CSF), similar to the more commonly known Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions.
Lombard only works with small-scale fishermen who use ethical practices -- line-caught, never in a net. He's also partnered with TwoXSea, a San Francisco company with rigorous sustainability standards that supplies Bay Area restaurants with seafood.
Sea Forager customers often get TwoXSea fish, too, which must meet six criteria listed on the company's website: the harvesting of the fish has "left more than enough fish for future generations and caused no habitat destruction;" there is no loss of marine life through incidental catching; any farming products sold did not involve use of chemicals or medicines, adverse use of feed from wild sources, introduction of non-native species into local fisheries or inflict "economic adversity on families and communities;" the person who caught the fish was paid fairly; the fish can be traced back to the vessel that caught them; and the fish comes from as local an area as possible.
In layman's terms, that means "the salmon were caught by fisherman Mikey aboard a ship built in 1922 in the eye of a wild Pacific gale four miles off Bolinas" and "you could have a beer with most of your fishermen because they operate nearby," Lombard writes on his website.
He adheres to TwoXSea's standards simply "because it just seemed like, what does the world really need? Does it need another person (who's) making excuses, or should I just really do the hardest thing? I think that's what we're doing."
In a world where much of the seafood is mislabeled or caught unethically -- but combating that as a consumer can feel overwhelming -- Sea Forager offers a solution.
And it's apparently a popular solution. Within two months of launching Sea Forager's subscription service, 150 people signed up, Lombard said. There are now about 540 subscribers from San Francisco to the South Bay.
Local customers include both the highly environmentally conscious and the more casual consumers who just want to eat great seafood. Palo Alto resident Deborah Buck has subscribed to Sea Forager for about six months. Her seafood criteria are less stringent, but still environmentally conscious. "It's got to be fresh," she said, and she prefers seafood that is not farmed nor has been frozen.
While she'll buy seafood at Safeway or Palo Alto grocery store Piazza's, the Sea Forager fish is "to-die-for" fresh, she said. She and her husband usually throw whatever they get on the grill with butter and not much else, given the high quality, she said.
On the other end of the spectrum is Enoch Choi, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation doctor who recently returned from Meat Camp at Belcampo Meat Co.'s farm in Mount Shasta, gets his tomatoes from the same Scotts Valley farm that supplies Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, and will often cook Sea Forager's goods in his own sous vide machine.
To get seafood that met his quality standards, Choi used to drive to specialty markets in San Jose that fly in fresh fish. It took a lot of effort and money, he said. After attending one of Lombard's foraging tours, he quickly signed up for the subscription service.
Choi said he appreciates not only how delicious the fresh seafood is, but the level of intimacy he gets through Sea Forager. Sometimes Lombard will send a video of the fishermen who caught that week's delivery, and Choi can watch his dinner get reeled in. The Sea Forager website is also full of educational information about local species, fisheries and the like, interspersed with quips and jokes that give you a taste of Lombard's personality.
"For people who care about things like that, more and more, they're paying for the story," Choi said. "It's kind of like a reassurance. We like to have an ongoing dialogue about everything and this kind of completes a very missing part and understanding of a pretty essential thing that we do a couple times a day: eating. We know a lot more about a lot of things in our lives (than about) the provenance of our food."
Lombard is seeking to change that. To find out more about -- and eat more -- truly sustainable seafood, he unabashedly offers the obvious advice: Sign up for one of his tours, and find a nearby Sea Forager pickup location.
More information about Sea Forager, along with details about Lombard's forthcoming book, "The Sea Forager's Guide to the Northern California Coast," is at seaforager.com.