Captain Adam Sewall of the Sunrise Fish Company spends long days fishing halibut from his one-man fishing boat in the San Francisco Bay and along the Marin coast. Take a journey in his boots for a day and learn more about why he throws back so much of what he catches.
When my alarm goes off my first thought is that it’s the middle of the night, there must be some mistake. But no, it’s 4AM and my phone is telling me that it’s time to get up. I put the kettle on and take one last look at my tide charts and weather report, it all looks promising. I sip my strong black coffee as I load my gear and fuel into the truck.
As I steam out of the Berkeley Marina by myself in my 25’ open fishing boat, adrenaline and excitement kick in along with the caffeine. The bay is beautiful and flat this morning. The sun is just rising behind me. I speed past the city, under the Golden Gate Bridge, through a pod of porpoises corralling anchovies at Baker Beach, past Seal Rocks, to my fishing grounds on 14 fathom bank.
When I arrive, I slow the boat and look for where to begin my day. I see a place where the sea is purple and black with a thick shoal of anchovies, their mass like a continent on a map. Birds are diving as salmon push the anchovies to the surface, and I notice the spout of a whale making her way towards the commotion. This is a good place to start.
I rig my rods and reels with heavy lead weights and herring. I send the herring along with the weight down to the sandy bottom, where the lead bounces along the ocean floor. I set six rods this way and tend them carefully. I watch the rods bend and tap rhythmically along the washboard texture of the sea floor. It’s not long before one of the rods buckles under the weight of a large fish. I scramble for the gear and start cranking. As I fight the fish I reach over the open console of the boat to steer carefully so the lines don’t tangle. My lead weight comes into view, and a few feet below it the silhouette of a large halibut. I reel the lead ball up to the rod tip and gaff the halibut into the boat. It’s a good fish, 17lbs.
Fishing outside the industry
When most people think about fishing, this is what they imagine. In reality, I am part of a very small fleet of passionate guys who fish by ourselves with rods and reels in small boats. Most of us couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
The overwhelming majority of the fish in our markets however arrives through a very different process. For seventy-odd years, freezer ships have plundered our oceans, and more recently aquaculture has monocultured and stifled our coasts. It’s almost a misnomer to me to call what I do fishing, when the industry is dominated by these goliaths of the sea.
At the fish market, my local line caught California halibut lays in the cooler next to Atlantic salmon, a fish transplanted from its north Atlantic home where it is all but extinct, to massive fish farming operations choking the bays and inlets in Chile.
Next in the cooler are steaks of swordfish, labeled “local” but caught by boats that migrate thousands of miles in search of the pacific’s last stock. These boats lay hundreds of miles of baited hooks, laying waste to huge numbers of oceanic predators that are unfortunate enough to eat the bait intended for the elusive swordfish.
It’s hard to tell my halibut from the local dragger-caught halibut as it’s often labeled the same. These large boats with their massive nets plow and scrape the sea floor, destroying any creature funneled into its purse. In an effort to maintain the health of our California coast, the government has tried to buy back the permits to operate these vessels, but their hefty offers have been refused. Dragger fishing is just too profitable.
One catch at a time
By the end of my day, I have released salmon, thresher sharks, and a bat ray back to the ocean alive, and kept 17 Halibut weighing a total of 150lbs. I steam back under the Golden Gate Bridge as the last rays of orange light bounce against the San Francisco skyline. I unload at Fisherman’s Wharf. My catch today will be enjoyed by patrons at some of the finest restaurants, fish markets, and even tech start-ups in the bay area. Tomorrow, I’ll ice my fish and bring it instead to the Tuesday Berkeley farmers market where I enjoy selling directly to my community.
It’s almost 10:00PM by the time I get back to the Berkeley Marina. I clean up my boat, pack up my gear, and get home to my apartment in Oakland. It’s been a long day, and my alarm will go off in less than six hours, I better eat some dinner.
– Captain Adam Sewall
Born and raised a true Mainer, Captain Adam Sewall comes from a long line of shipbuilders and fishermen. Adam bought his own halibut boat and started the Sunrise Fish Company in 2015. He now plies the waters around the San Francisco Bay and the Marin coast in search of the freshest catch before selling at market in South Berkeley. Come by to swap fish stories and pick up the catch of the day.”