One of the ugliest little creatures in the ocean off Southern California is known as the Pacific Angel shark.
Along the coast from Los Angeles south to Orange County and San Diego, it also is known as a "junk fish"--thrown back by commercial fishermen who pick them up in their nets.
But farther up the coast, starting around Ventura and Santa Barbara, a different story is developing. Despite the fact that they have skin so tough that it wears out fileting knives in a fairly short time, and so sandpapery rough that a fish-processing worker goes through two pairs of gloves a day, the Angel shark's popularity is on the rise.
"Just wait till you taste the meat," said John Richards, Sea Grant adviser at UC Santa Barbara. "I attended a shark conference in Portland, Ore., last fall and we had sort of a tasting contest, a judging, of all kinds of shark.
"I had brought along some Angel shark, and among all the soupfin, thresher and other favorite sharks, it was the unanimous winner, picked by a bunch of shark experts. Funny thing, the fillets I took up there had been frozen for more than two months."
Restaurants in Santa Barbara, San Jose and San Francisco claim they run out of the fish almost as fast as they put it on the menu, according to such distributors as Cal Shell Fish Co. of San Francisco. People who have sampled the firm, white meat--especially when barbecued--say it is the best fish they have ever had.
There's a paradox in the saga of the Angel shark, which lives on the sea floor, averages four feet in length and is known by the scientific name of \o7 squatina californica. \f7 Just 12 years ago, the California Seafood Institute, faced with a growing public demand for more ocean products, was trying desperately to lure people into eating shark.
A good part of its effort was devoted to overcoming the built-in aversion to a fish that was generally thought of as a man-killer, and part of the strategy was to come up with a name that didn't suggest shark. They even considered such titles as "gray fish" or "white fish" for fillets of soupfin, thresher or bonita sharks.
Fortunately, gray and white didn't catch on, but people began buying the soupfins, thresher, bonita and other well-known sharks anyway (2.5 million pounds in Southern California last year as opposed to less than one-third that amount in 1974) and all the time, the shark with the charming name of Angel was being ignored.
Mike Wagner, a Santa Barbara seafood broker and processor, said the real credit for stirring up the Angel shark interest belongs to a former employee, Tony Genovese.
"He's retired and I don't know where he is now, but he was a halibut fisherman, using gill nets to get the fish off the bottom.
"He came to me one day in 1977 and said he was getting mad about throwing back the Angel sharks he picked up along with the halibut, and mad about seeing all the other fishermen do the same. He was from Italy, and he knew that Angel sharks, which are similar to a species found over there, are good to eat, so he made a deal with me.
"He brought me, free, two sharks a day for six weeks, and we experimented with cutting them, which is very tough because of their funny shape. I put the fillets out at some small, local fish markets, and pretty soon the demand was growing and I was paying Tony for the sharks."
Since then, with the help of the Sea Grant expert, Richards, months and years have been spent in determining the best way to cut the sharks, not only to get the most meat but to get it in shapes that appeal to shoppers.
Wagner said nine of the 13 boats that fish for him now concentrate on Angel shark, and his Seafood Specialties Inc. shipped 700,000 pounds of the 1.25-million pounds produced last year in California. The other 500,000 pounds were handled by Brando Seafood Co. in Santa Barbara, and Wayman Fish Co. in Ventura, he said.
In 1984, only 375,000 pounds had been shipped by all three companies.
According to Dennis Bedford, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, Angel shark fishing operations, so far, are more or less confined to waters off Santa Barbara, Ventura and Avila Beach (just north of Pismo Beach), and near some of the channel islands where the ocean floor is a relatively flat shelf that lends itself to bottom net-fishing operations. The \o7 squatina californica\f7 species is found in waters from Morro Bay south to Mexico and the northern coast of South America.
In San Pedro, Frank Iacone, general manager of the California Fisherman's Cooperative, said that none of the 30 boats in his organization try for Angels, but use purse seines, which are not suited for bottom fishing. He said another 30 boats that tie up at nearby docks are gill-netters that could go for Angels but so far have not done so, and he added that he "hasn't heard anything about marketing of Angel sharks" in the San Pedro-Los Angeles area.