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Is the Port of San Francisco trying to put an 80-year-old crab company out of business?

Sisters Annette Traverso and Angela “Angel” Cincotta. Photo: SUSAN DYER REYNOLDS

The Alioto-Lazio Fish Company, opened in the 1940s on San Francisco’s iconic Fisherman’s Wharf, is the last of five fishing businesses started by Tom Lazio. Opened with relatives Frank Alioto and Sal Tarantino, it was a beacon to local fishermen who unloaded fresh fish and crab, sold directly to the public at wholesale prices. Granddaughters Annette and Angela started helping out in their teens, mostly in the back office. When Lazio passed away in 1998 at the age of 92, wife Annetta Alioto Lazio took over and, when she passed away in 2003 at age 98, “the girls,” as they’re known on the wharf, took over the day-to-day operations. It wasn’t easy in a male-dominated industry. The same fishermen who had worked with their grandfather for 30 years refused to deliver products. Their phone lines were cut, and when they were working they occasionally delivered death threats. Undeterred, the women found fishermen up north to come to the rescue, and today the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company is the last commercial fish processing and selling business on the wharf.

The work is not for the faint of heart, involving long hours from early morning until late at night unloading boats, fileting fish, shoveling ice, putting Dungeness crabs in the live tanks, and cooking hundreds of the prized crustaceans. During California’s season they’re from the briny bay just beyond the wharf, while out of season the crabs come from Washington. As the only company on the wharf to ship crab, they do a booming business during the holidays, which usually coincides with the opening of the season (though it’s been getting later each year). Need a gift for a crab lover who has everything? Send them the San Francisco Package, number two: a pair of Dungeness crabs and a loaf of the city’s legendary sourdough bread. 

Standing in the cavernous building at 440 Jefferson Street (bonus, they have parking), I watch a feisty crab lift one claw over the tank as if trying to escape. Angela “Angel” Cincotta notes that their shells are too heavy and eventually “he’ll fall back in.” Nearby, giant steel pots emit the sweet smell of cooked crab. In the front, petrale sole (one of my favorites) glistens on crushed ice. Not only is it impeccably fresh, the price is better than you’ll find at any supermarket. Despite all the hard work and years of establishing themselves as women fish purveyors in a man’s world,  Angel and her sister Annette Traverso say their biggest battle has been with the Port of San Francisco, which manages 7.5 miles of City waterfront and reports to the five member Port Commission.

OIL SPILLS AND RED TAGS

According to Angel and Annette, in 1999 plans emerged at the California Department of Boating and Waterways displaying new designs for the Port of San Francisco that included a “restaurant row” and J-10, the lot where Alioto-Lazio sits, demolished for “open space.” In August 2000, the Port handed Alioto-Lazio a three-day notice to cease all processing and vacate the premises. According to the Port of San Francisco, workers at the Hyde Street Harbor noticed damage, so they sent an engineer to inspect. That engineer returned a finding of rotting pilings that could “topple at any moment.” Wharf J-10 was red tagged, and all equipment was ordered removed within seven days. Behind the main building in what is known as Fish Alley, a decrepit wooden shed was condemned. But it wasn’t just any old shed — it was the place thousands of crabs were cooked and fish was unloaded from incoming boats for decades. “We know they want the land back,” Angel says. “It’s prime property.”

In Dec. 1, 2001, the company won a $3 million lawsuit against the Port, with help from their attorney, Angela Alioto. (“She’s our cousin from the political Alioto side,” Annette says.) The lawsuit alleged the Port of San Francisco neglected its duties as a landlord to regularly inspect J-10 and keep them informed of its condition. The Port of San Francisco appealed, but in 2004 Alioto-Lazio prevailed and the jury award was upheld. Also in 2004, a suspicious two-alarm fire happened in the condemned fishing shed. 

But the sisters had bigger fish to fry. Back in 2003, the Port of San Francisco notified tenants that fuel storage tanks owned by Exxon Mobil had leaked, contaminating the water and soil. From 2004 to 2007, Alioto-Lazio tried to work with the Board of Supervisors to do something about the contamination. “Annette’s son Lucian was born without fingers on one hand,” Angel says. “His birth corresponds directly with the clean-up job on the tank farm. He went to the meeting with us, just 10 years old, and he stood in front of the supervisors and held up his hand and begged them to test the soil so future kids wouldn’t end up like him.” Their district supervisor at the time was the same supervisor they have today: Aaron Peskin. “He’s never done anything to help us,” Angel says. “After that meeting the board made the decision to just demolish it and not do any testing.” 

And then it happened again.

In 2007, while demolishing Wharf J-10, the sisters say the Port of San Francisco deviated from its plans by pulling the piling from the ground, causing more oil to leach into the water and soil. “It took the demo crew over three hours to call the Office of Emergency Services,” Angel says. Still, no action was taken against the Port of San Francisco. The following year, then-City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued Exxon Mobil, claiming 3,884 gallons of petroleum and 210,000 pounds of tar had been found in the soil and groundwater near the former site of the fuel tanks at the address shared with Alioto-Lazio. “We asked to join the lawsuit,” Annette says. “But Herrera said only the Port of San Francisco was damaged, so we had to sue separately.” In June 2009, Alioto-Lazio filed their own lawsuit against Exxon Mobil and the Port of San Francisco for harming their family’s business and health.

THE CRAB POTS CONSPIRACY

In 2010, Angel was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. “Of course, we wonder if it’s related to the contamination,” she says. In 2011, Lazio-Alioto closed for 10 months during the clean-up. “All we wanted to do is get back to our business,” Angel says. “Instead, we were dealing with politics and the Big Oil industry.” In 2012, the lawsuit against the Port of San Francisco and Exxon Mobil settled out of court.

Since reopening in November 2011, Angel and Annette say the Port of San Francisco has continued to harass them in what seems like a concerted effort. The stories are frightening — and in a city known for some of the worst government corruption in the country, entirely plausible. In 2018, while unloading a small catch, the hoist came down on Angel. “Had it been a full load, I would be dead,” she says. Annette nods. “It was visibly tampered with. Someone in intel told her there was a contract out on her life and she should stay out of the dark.” 

While the experience was unnerving, Angel continued her daily routine. “A couple weeks later at 5 a.m. on Bay Street by the Safeway, a car comes alongside me and attempts to push me off the road into the parked cars. I slammed on the breaks and he had to overshoot me.” 

Then there’s Anita Yao, the wharfinger in charge of collecting rents (a job that pays $125,000 with salary and benefits). “She gave herself the title of harbormaster and the Port allowed it,” Angel says. “They paid for her to take all these trips and make contacts in the industry, and now she’s doing a wholesale seafood business on the side.” During a meeting regarding the Lazio-Alioto leasehold, Yao presented architectural drawings “done with taxpayer money” for putting floating docks in for fishing boats. “That got stopped,” Angel says. 

Then in the spring of 2020, the distinctive sheen of fuel bubbled up yet again, stretching from Hyde Street Harbor to Leavenworth Street. “They’ve been trying to contain the oil leaking ever since,” Angel says, pointing to the blue and green streaked water beyond a chain link fence. “They put in a reactive barrier to contain it, but that’s full. Some of the workers told us with it being the third spill, this should be a superfund site.” 

On top of it all, last month the Port Commission voted unanimously to allow the sale of live Dungeness crab directly from fishing boats. They also voted to make permanent a program that allows whole fish to be sold from boats. “Businesses at the waterfront lost 40 percent of their revenue because of the pandemic,” Port Executive Director Elaine Forbes said. At the October Port Commission meeting, Angel and other wholesalers expressed concern about creating “unfair business competition” with low permit fees for participating boats. 

Despite pressure from the Port and no help from the Board of Supervisors, their current lease doesn’t expire until 2036, and Angel says the ladies of Alioto-Lazio have no intention of giving up. “This is our life; it’s in our blood. It meant a lot to our grandparents and our parents and it means a lot to us. Walking away isn’t an option.”

To find out what fresh fish is available, call Alioto-Lazio Fish Company in the morning 415-673-5868. To order for delivery visit online visit crabonline.com (they offer overnight shipping). To buy crab and fish in person, visit the storefront at 440 Jefferson Street at Fisherman’s Wharf Mon-Fri 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sat. 7 a.m. to noon (closed Sundays).

E-mail: [email protected]. Follow Susan and the Marina Times on Twitter: @SusanDReynolds and @TheMarinaTimes.

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