If you love seafood, you know that fresher is better. Timing is not everything, though. Catch method—how the fish get from the water to your plate—is another important aspect to consider. Two forward-thinking Bay Area fish companies are passionate about their commitment to forge new links between small boat fishermen and local chefs that honor both the fish and the people who make their living from the sea.
Water2Table and TwoXSea, both operating out of Pier 45 in San Francisco, provide much of the responsibly harvested fish to restaurants in the Bay Area. The owners and their teams point out why it’s so important to know where our fish are coming from and how they are caught.
Transparency for the Consumer
Seafood wholesaler TwoXSea is one of the leaders in the current wave of the culinary revolution, providing consciously caught fish to restaurants whose menus include organic, farm-to-table produce and grass-fed, free-range meats. Their mission is to go beyond sustainability and towards renewability of seafood for future generations, with no habitat destruction.
“I got into this business because I was, and still am, a restaurant owner [of Fish in Sausalito],” TwoXSea’s owner Kenny Belov said. “When I’d call a fish supplier they’d tell me what they thought I wanted to hear about their product, not necessarily what was true. The reason the seafood chain is broken is the first receiver sells to a regional company, who in turn would sell to a local company, who would in turn sell to the restaurants. So, even in the best case scenario, you’d be three steps away in terms of freshness.”
“With the vessel-direct business model, you do have to take the entire catch. I knew I had access to all this wonderful product, with no bycatch, so I contacted other local chefs. ‘Here’s this list of product—are you interested?’ And all the chefs in the Bay Area community with the same values wanted it. We work with a large fleet of boats and we’re adding new ones daily,” Belov said.
They chose the name TwoXSea (from the Longfellow poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” about the American Revolutionary War, with its memorable line ‘one if by land and two if by sea’) “because the oceans are under attack right now, and we are the ones attacking,” Belov said. As consumers, we have grown accustomed to eating fish that are out of season, caught in ways that deplete resources and harm the habitat. “Unless we change our habits, turn that ship to a different course, none of us are here… there’s no going back. We’re starting to see a change. I’m so proud.”
Inspired by their commitment to quality and a renewable ocean, Kelly Collins Geiser, a former personal chef, joined TwoXSea in 2015 to handle North Bay sales.
“Fishing is a sketchy industry,” said Geiser, who considers herself mainly an educator. “There’s no regulation on the word ‘sustainability.’ The word has become a joke. We see a lot of things going on on Pier 45—like fish shipped in from Thailand and Vietnam, and then labeled as being from Hawaii.”
What TwoXSea offers the client is complete transparency in catch methods for wild-caught fish. “Let’s fish a product that will be there when our grandchildren want it. Renewability and honesty are our focus,” said Geiser.
Protecting Oceans for the Future
Belov explains to clients why TwoXSea won’t have certain types of fish. “Constant communication is paramount. We like to protect our oceans for the future and give guests a better dining experience. Every species of fish we sell that is line-caught has a counterpart that is trawl-caught. We say ‘no’ a lot [to chefs]. It means fewer items. I know how difficult it is to write a menu—I look at it through their eyes. We hold inventory for the restaurants—we never filet anything, it’s whole, laying on ice in swimming formation in insulated bins. We allow the chefs to come to our facility to pick out their fish. Our fish always looks like it came right from the water.”
Rocky Burns, a second generation fisherman, was running a crab boat from Eureka to Crescent City when he met Belov four years ago. His role at TwoXSea is to purchase high quality, sustainably caught fish along the West Coast from small-boat hook-and-line fishermen. “In the past, the fishing industry was geared to getting rock-bottom prices for as many fish as could be caught. The days of the big trawl boats are over. Fish are now less of a commodity and more of a traceable product, with higher wages for the fisherman,” said Burns.
“We get our black rockfish from Kenyon Hensel, who operates the F/V Cindarosa, a 22-foot big skiff Boston whaler. There’s no cabin to sleep in—it’s a day boat only. He catches the fish with a rod and reel. It’s a labor of love. The rockfish weigh 3 to 5 pounds, and on a good day Kenyon will bring in 500 pounds. There’s virtually no bycatch—only ling cod, which can be sold.”
Small-boat fishing is dangerous work with long hours. As Burns describes it, “A typical day begins at 5 a.m. and they can only go out if the weather is good—below 15-knot winds and lower than 8- to 10-foot seas. The level of danger varies with the winds and the swells. The captains we work with are stewards. They take care with their harvesting practices, they’re mindful of the ocean, and they take pride in their catch. And they know that we will reward them.”
The recent drought has caused changes in fishing, Burns said. “The seasons for the different species are cyclical. The drought has had a big effect. We had a good 5-year crab season and now we’re on the downward slope. The drought has affected salmon fishing in a negative way as well. The good news is that Kenyon reported that rockfish are more abundant than they’ve been in 15 years.”
TwoXSea is also making changes in fish farming that result in tastier fish and a healthier environment. Their McFarland Springs Trout are raised in the cold headwaters of the Susan River in Northern California (funneled through a series of raceways and returned back to its natural stream) on a domestically grown vegetarian feed made from algae, California pistachio, flax, and non-GMO pea, without soy or corn, and “absolutely no Monsanto products,” said Kelly Geiser. Detailed information about TwoXSea’s trout farming operation and a chart on what is seasonal can be found on their website.
The New Normal in Seafood Distribution
Growing up in a San Francisco Italian family, and a recreational fisherman all his life, Joe Conte knew everyone in the fishing clubs and the political fishing organizations. And, he worked in the restaurant business for 16 years.
Five years ago, he and his wife Ande started Water2Table, which deals exclusively with hook and line-caught fish. With their mobile receiving truck, they pick up the fish directly from the boats coming in from Monterey up to Bodega Bay and deliver directly to restaurants within 1 to 2 days of the catch.
“In the normal chain of seafood distribution, fish are delivered by the boats to a receiver at a fixed location in a harbor, then to a wholesaler, then to a distributor then to the restaurants. It’s a 3- to 6-day process,” Conte said. Water2Table bypasses that chain. “We are the receivers and the distributors. We have a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife to receive fish. We can get them in as late as midnight and we’re sending them out by 7 a.m. the following morning. Sometimes we hold up the receiving truck to wait for a boat to bring in a couple of items that the restaurants want,” he added.
“The day-boat guys go out early in the morning and come in that same evening. They have one or two fisherman onboard, handling 4 to 6 fishing rods. When albacore are in season and within 40 miles of shore, the boats are out from 3 a.m. to 11 p.m. For black cod, the boats will stay out for a day and a half. They catch a lot of local halibut right out in front of Seal Rock in San Francisco.”
Salmon boats, which can stay out for 2 to 3 days, will utilize 20 to 30 single lines, with one hook per line. Conte explained, “Picture a boat with a huge weight 100 feet down. The individual lines are clipped onto it with release clips. When a fish takes the hook, it releases from the line holding the weight and rises to the surface. The fisherman can see that a fish took it, and one or two guys will hand-pull it in. When the boat is moving, it’s called trolling—not trawling,” he said, emphatically.
Conte said most of the fish caught in California are sustainable. The Department of Fish and Wildlife establishes quotas and seasons based on science. “It’s good science,” he said, “and it’s actually enforced. They use boats, airplanes; they have people on the docks. They’ll stop the boats out in the water to check for violations. And they have liberal search and seizure capabilities.”
Conte notes that the sea bass population has increased, due in part to the banning of gill netting and to the hatchery program in Southern California. And, “they follow the squid. Traditionally they are found from Southern California down to Baja, but last summer they were showing up in force in Bodega Bay.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife allows only a certain number of fishing permits to be issued. The cost, ranging from $1,500 up to $600,000, depends in part on the size of the boat. “There are many different regulations and they change yearly, and sometimes in mid-season. The main commercial fish are Dungeness crab and salmon, and they are strictly regulated. There are depth restrictions. I know not to buy certain fish,” Conte said, “but it’s up to the fishermen to stay in compliance.”
Conte works with about 80 different boats. “I make sure that all my boats have a hold or a bin—like a 1,000-pound ice chest—filled with slush, a mix of ice and sea water. As soon as the fish are caught, they bleed them and put them into the slush on the boat. In our receiving area, we have a walk-in refrigerator that has a 33-degree slush, so they are maintained at that temperature.”
Working with the Unpredictable
Conte and his team keep in close daily contact with their clients. “We like to work with the chefs who are willing to change their menu and roll with the punches,” said Conte. “We get started early in the morning and go late. Between 4 and 7 a.m., we’ll send out an email to the chefs. The chefs will place their orders for the following day from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.” The availability of local line-caught fish is based on the season and also on the weather—if the weather is bad, the boats can’t go out. “If a restaurant has a menu that’s consistent for months at a time, that means they are using fish that are frozen or brought in from somewhere else.”Water2Table distributes mainly in San Francisco and also in the East Bay and South Bay, and is just now expanding into Sonoma and Napa counties. Patrick Maier, a recreational fisherman who grew up in the Bay Area, also worked as a chef and managed the kitchen of a busy seafood restaurant before he joined Water2Table two years ago to handle distribution.
“One of the downfalls of the fishing industry is dishonesty,” said Maier. “Local halibut season is from spring through fall. The vast majority of the ‘local halibut’ you will see on menus in the winter actually
comes from Mexico. Some of it comes from Southern California. It’s often caught by a trawler with a drag net. You can tell the difference by the belly. When trawl-caught halibut is dragged along the ocean floor, with rocks and other incidental catch, the belly flesh gets torn and damaged. On our line-caught halibut, the belly is pristine.”
Local fish and shellfish comprise 75 percent of Water2Table’s business, but they also supply farmed salmon, hand-sorted mussels and oysters, and some products from Japan to their restaurant customers.
“It’s a very tough business,” Maier said. “There are very few industries like it. It’s so unpredictable, so volatile. There are a lot of variables with a wild product. But we have a reputation for high quality that keeps people interested in our product. We may not have everything everyday but when we do have it, they know it’s the quality that they want.”
If you are looking for quality over quantity in what you eat and want to be part of the solution to keeping our oceans viable, seek out restaurants that use responsibly harvested fish on their menus. What’s good for the fish is also good for the fishermen and for the future of our oceans. SD