Maria Finn, aka the Queen of Sustainable Seafood in the Bay area, is a Marin-based foodie, chef, speaker, and author. She has worked with the Ocean Conservancy, community supported fishery Real Good Fish, various fishery organizations and has spoken on her experiences at the SOCAP Conference, Chefs Collaborative, the California Academy of Sciences and many other places. Last year she wrote a four-part syndicated series from Hothouse with chapter titles: “Save the Sea. Eat an Oyster”, “Seawater is the New Soil”, “The Well-Traveled Squid”, “Eat Like an Animal”, and more. Her writing is featured in TED Books, Wine Spectator, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Sunset Magazine, and she has written for The Food & Environmental Reporting Network. Her cookbook, Forage. Gather. Feast is forthcoming on Sasquatch Books in April 2024 with recipes from the coast, forest and urban areas. We talked with Maria to get the scoop on how to eat sustainably in the Bay Area.
Feature image by Marla Aufman
What's your food background, and what inspired you to dive into sustainability in food?
I started in the food industry when I was a teenager. I worked in fine dining and fell in love with food and wine. Out of college, I moved to Alaska, where I ended up working as a cook on an all-female commercial fishing boat for salmon. I was also a deckhand on the salmon boat, and that’s where I started to learn about wild food, catching your food, and ecosystems from that angle. I then worked for the Department of Fish and Game in Alaska and on the Yukon Delta with the Yupik people and their fish-drying camps. I learned about how they live and see the world and their intimacy with their food.
What are the guilt free options to order while traveling if you want to get seafood?
Guilt-free options are oysters, mussels, and clams. Those are all coming from regenerative farms; for the most part, they improve the water where they are grown. Then, I’d ask where the seafood is from and do a little research. California fisheries and most domestic fisheries are pretty sustainable, with the few exceptions of the Bering Sea and the big Swordfish drift gillnets. In general, ordering the bivalves and the little fish, the sardines, the anchovies, the little squid, and the little mackerel is best as they’re low on the food chain, they don’t have long lifespans, and they breed quickly. Diversity is also important; don’t get shrimp or farmed salmon, and don’t get great big tuna. Those are the main things people eat, and those are the biggest problems.
Where do you come across " farmed salmon, shrimp, big tuna" the most?
Everywhere. From Costco shrimp trays and Red Lobster “all you can eat” to fine dining restaurants and big tuna like yellowfin at the popular poke stands or sushi places. So either eat at trusted places that try to buy locally, like Fish in Sausalito or or Hook Fish Co. in Mill Valley or ask your server: where is it from? How was it caught? If they don’t know or care, try the vegetarian option.
Why is farmed salmon so bad?
Farmed Atlantic Salmon are kept in massive, crowded ocean pens in non-native environments like Chile or the West Coast of the US. When they escape, they disrupt the surrounding ecosystem, and the large amounts of antibiotics used to prevent disease are released and cause issues in surrounding areas. Farming is also a protein net loss. It takes 3 pounds of wild-caught forage fish to produce 1 pound of salmon. Finally, the emphasis should be on supporting natural salmon habitats where wild salmon play a vital role in ecosystems, benefiting numerous creatures such as orca whales, sea lions, terns, and osprey while also fertilizing river bottoms and trees. As well, salmon are vital for many indigenous communities on the West Coast.
Top tips for people looking to eat consciously in the Bay?
I would say shop at the farmers markets. A rumor got started that the farmer’s market is expensive, which is not necessarily the case. You can get three big bundles of leafy greens for six dollars. That is so many nutrients and less food waste, as they last much longer than what you get in the grocery store. I live in Marin, and I think the San Rafael farmers’ market rivals any farmers’ market in the world. I don’t have any formal training as a chef, but I’m an excellent cook because I shop at the farmers market.
What's your latest adventure?
During COVID, I started my company, Flora and Fungi Adventures. It is an outdoor adventure experience where I teach people how to forage for porcini and chanterelles, cook on open fires, learn the benefits and basics of seaweed, and more. I’ve been expanding the adventures based on people’s interests. For example, someone asked where I get my anchovies, so I started a class where people meet me at the Fisherman’s Wharf and teach people how to buy right from the fisherman and filet there. I am planning a series of pop-up dinners as part of The Institute for Ecosystem-based Living that I’m launching in 2024, where I bring in a scientist and artist to talk on a theme, and I cook a meal that ties into it. Finally, my latest with Flora Jayne are truffle talks and tastings at wineries, businesses, and schools. Truffles sound bouje, but they are an incredible communicator and mover of energy in the forest, and I love to share them.