Guest Post | Know Your Fisherman

Captain Adam Sewall
Captain Adam Sewall is a local fisherman who spends his days between the Berkeley Marina and just outside the Golden Gate. Photo credit: Michael Santiago

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.

Casting off

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.”

Weekly Roundup October 11, 2013

Daily Californian 10/6/13
Businesses Experience Smooth Implementation of County Plastic Bag Ban
City and county officials report that Alameda County’s single-use plastic bag ban has been successfully implemented without any major obstacles since it took effect in January.
While the ordinance requires businesses to keep exact records of paper bags purchased, store owners and employees report that the task has not been significantly detrimental to business operations. Many stores, including large chains and small businesses, report that the transition to phase out plastic bags was accompanied by either no inconveniences or only minor ones.
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San Francisco Chronicle 10/9/13
Walk the Bay Takes Trip Across New Bay Bridge
The new east span of the Bay Bridge is up and carrying upward of 300,000 vehicles a day. You may have driven it, you may have cruised under it on BART or you may have missed it altogether. Now’s your chance to not just see the bridge, but to really see the bridge.
On Saturday, Walk San Francisco is partnering with California Walks, Walk Oakland Bike Oakland and Oakland Urban Paths for the inaugural Walk the Bay. We’ll lead you on a walk across the Bay Bridge. Well, almost across: The bridge’s pedestrian and bicycle path doesn’t yet touch down on Yerba Buena Island – and it won’t for a year or two – but we’ll be trekking over the bay nonetheless.
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San Jose Mercury News 10/7/13
Thousands of Old Pilings to be Removed from San Francisco Bay
Thousands of derelict pilings soaked with creosote will be removed from San Francisco Bay in an effort to clean up an important habitat for Pacific herring.
The Marin Independent Journal reports that the state Coastal Conservancy will run a program to remove 33,000 bay pilings after receiving a $2 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The pilings once supported fishing piers and boat launches.
Pacific herring remain the only commercially harvested fish inside the bay, and often use the pilings and other hard surfaces to spawn. Herring are also an important food for whales, birds and salmon.
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Yale School of Forestry Report
Climate Change in the American Mind: Focus on California, Ohio, and Texas
Californians are more likely to be concerned about global warming than those in some other states. Majorities in each state say global warming is happening. This belief is most widespread in California (79%), but seven in ten in Colorado, Ohio, and Texas agree as well (70% in each).Over half of Californians say that, if global warming is happening, it is caused mostly by human activities (58%). About half of Ohioans (49%) and Coloradans (48%) agree. By contrast, fewer Texans (44%) say global warming is caused mostly by human activities, and 31% say it is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment. Californians are the most likely to say they are very or somewhat worried about global warming (63%), followed by Coloradans (59%). Ohioans are the least likely to express worry (52%), and nearly half (47%) say they are not very or not at all worried about global warming.
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Weekly Roundup January 11, 2013

weekly roundupAn oil tanker hit the Bay Bridge early this week, fortunately causing only minimal damage, with no oil spilled. The cause remains unknown, but serves as a reminder that the rules governing tankers in the Bay are not strong enough. The Bay Bridge is exempt from the San Francisco Harbor Safety Plan, which advises ships not to navigate certain areas of the Bay with less than a half-mile visibility. High tides were back this week, reminiscent of the King tides but now accompanied by especially low tides too. The last remaining commercial fishery in San Francisco Bay was in full force this week, with schools of herring arriving in numbers unseen in past decades. The fishermen were out competing with local wildlife who were happily fattening up on this local delicacy. For once, there seemed to be enough for all. San Franciscans are celebrating new waterfront parks that are opening more of the southern end of the city to the public. If you want to get up close and personal with our local wetlands, and have a good time with your family, you might want to try geocaching. Read on to learn more.

CBS SF Bay Area 1/7/13
Oil Tanker Hits Bay Bridge Tower; No Spill Reported
An empty oil tanker caused minor damage Monday when it struck a tower in the middle of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge while navigating beneath the hulking span, officials said.
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SF Chronicle 1/6/13
Dramatic tides carry great experiences
Last time around in mid-December, we called them king tides. They caused flooding in many tidal wetlands and lowlands edging San Francisco Bay. The levels of high and low tides fluctuate throughout the year, but this week’s highs mark the extreme in the next six months. In nature’s teeter-totter effect, uncommon negative low tides will follow.
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Bay Nature 1/9/13
San Francisco Bay herring running at Mission Bay
The herring are running again in San Francisco, and it’s quite a show. Commercial fishing boats cast their nets in China Basin, at the mouth of Mission Creek, in the shadow of the Giants ballpark, and dozens of anglers threw small nets from piers and wharves all along the waterfront in Mission Bay.
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SF Chronicle 1/10/13
Open future for city’s maritime past
The ghosts of San Francisco’s maritime past are getting some new company along the southern waterfront as the city works to bring people to sites previously open only to ships and seafarers.
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Bay Nature 1/5/13
Cut Off from Nature or Take the Right Cut-off?
This is part of an occasional series of posts about the geocaching adventures of Bay Nature intern Paul Epstein and his son.
The wetlands defy easy access: crucially important to migrant bird populations and the health of the Bay, they are at the same time sometimes ugly, often muddy, and likely close to large, loud, smelly highways. Dad always enjoyed the concept of wetlands, though the reality was another matter. As an undergraduate, Dad had majored in a dead language, deep inside the walls of the Humanities. Recognizing that there was a larger world out there, Dad promised himself that he would take one class, not just in the adjacent corridors of the Sciences and the Social Sciences, but actually in a different college. Setting aside optometry, Dad took exactly one course in the School of Natural Resources, Political Ecology, in which he wrote exactly one, very lengthy paper on the loss of wetlands around the bay.
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