Fishing in the San Francisco Bay. Leighton Kelly/Heyday Books

A new book makes the case for environmental reverence through ethical fishing.

Kirk Lombard is an apologist for the Pacific herring. The small, plentifully available fish are perhaps not the most glamorous of the edible ocean fauna, but in his new book, The Sea Forager’s Guide to the Northern California Coast, Lombard, a Bay Area fisherman, argues that they deserve some reverence. In the book, he writes:

There are few natural events that occur inside an urban estuary that are as deeply awesome and life affirming as a herring spawn. We’re talking thirty to sixty thousand seagulls (including, in 2014, a rare Iceland gull and a lesser slaty-backed!), plus harbor porpoises, sea lions, seals, pelicans dropping out of the sky, huge flocks of cormorants, surf scooters, and other diving birds.

The Sea Forager’s Guide is an unusual tome: part guide to urban fishery, part poetic ramble, part collection of anecdotes, part recipe book, it advocates for an ethical, considered approach to fishing the waterways of the Northern California coast. Working as an observer for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission for seven years, Lombard canvassed the Bay Area, monitoring recreational fishermen and sport boats. Through that work, he amassed an index of the state fishing regulations, species distinctions, and harvest cycles; he funneled anecdotal snippets of his life in the waterways into a popular blog, The Monkeyface News, named after a variety of California eel that Lombard became famous for catching.

(Heyday Books)

The Sea Forager’s Guide brings to the page Lombard’s expansive knowledge—the book contains detailed biological and historical portraits of over 80 fish and bait species, and the gear necessary to grapple with them—but also, his sense of ethical responsibility. At the outset of the book, Lombard poses a question to his readers: Would you rather be a consumer or a citizen?

A consumer, Lombard writes, “is the kind of person who takes abundance for granted.” They bend the rules; they don’t consider the lives of the fish before harvesting them; they have no regard for the impact of their actions on the environment.

A citizen, on the other hand, is educated about the intertidal coastal system, and “understands that she has an impact and she does everything she can to minimize that impact,” Lombard writes. Citizens do not take shortcuts—they collect only mature fish to ensure that they’ve had a chance to spawn and perpetuate their species; they don’t use invasive tools like crowbars on mussel beds. The correct way to collect mussels is by hand; it should be difficult, but gathering the species ethically is its own reward, Lombard writes.  

A Pacific herring. (Leighton Kelly/Heyday Books)

The same sensibility governs Lombard’s approach to the Pacific herring. The population in the San Francisco Bay is enormous: for the 2015-2016 season, the estimated biomass of herring was 14,900 tons. So plentiful are the fish, Lombard says, that there’s technically no limit placed on the amount a recreational fisherman can catch. That’s where ethics come into play, Lombard says. In the book, Lombard describes seeing fisherman take to the waterways with eight-to-ten-foot nets to collect the tiny fish, many of which are likely wasted. Lombard advocates using a smaller net, and casting out with the intention of only taking what you absolutely need.

In the case of rare or unusual species, like the plainfin midshipmen, Lombard can’t even bring himself to advocate for harvesting them at all. Nowhere near as plentiful as the herring, and much quirkier, plainfin midshipmen make strange humming noise that once, Lombard writes, caused a furor in the bayside town of Sausalito when the buzzing from the fish kept the human residents awake at night. “When you start to learn more about the species, you have to ask yourself: do you really want to kill them at all?” Lombard asks.

It’s a barefaced question from the author of a foraging book, but reverence for the particularities of the California environment is what ties The Sea Forager’s Guide together. The illustrations scattered throughout the book were drawn by Leighton Kelly, an artist Lombard describes as “the Leonardo da Vinci of Oakland.” Kelly’s grandfather, William Alston Ritchie Lovejoy, hobnobbed around the Monterey Bay with John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts; Lovejoy illustrated the first edition of Ricketts’ marine biology tome, Between Pacific Tides, to which Lombard looked for inspiration when writing The Sea Forager’s Guide.

That sense of history and continuity, Lombard hopes, will deter people from interpreting his book as a free pass to take from the California waterways at will. “I did my best to dissuade the idiots,” Lombard says. “This is about establishing reverence for the rules and for the environment.” Ultimately, The Sea Forager’s Guide sets out a path to a mutually beneficial relationship with the waterways and the populations contained within them. And a considered approach to foraging, Lombard writes, is the nearest thing to a trip back in time:

If you squint your eyes slightly and drown out the sound of the cars going by, and the gill net beaters on the herring boats, and the planes passing overhead, you can actually sort of imagine what the bay must have been like five hundred years ago.

The Sea Forager’s Guide to the Northern California Coast, $22, Heyday Books.

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