One of the oldest occupations on the Central Coast is fishing. Unfortunately, after years of regulation designed to manage the regions fisheries, it’s the fishermen themselves who are an endangered species.
That’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons. First, fishing is really at the leading edge of the tourism culture. Just ask Ventura Harbor and Morro Bay, which have been trying to rebuild their tourism cred in part by reinvigorating their commercial fishing appeals and playing up their local seafood.
Second, we are just at the dawn of a new era for the marketing of locally caught fish. Programs such as Community Seafood in Santa Barbara and a UC Santa Barbara spinoff called Salty Girl Seafood are dramatically closing the gaps between fishermen, consumers and restaurants.
Better information is the key to resolving problems such as seafood mislabeling, a pet issue for State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, who claims that some 40 percent of California seafood served at Bay Area restaurants is not what the menu says it is.
I recently toured the Santa Barbara Harbor with U.S. Rep. Lois Capps, a Santa Barbara Democrat, and a number of veteran commercial anglers. Most are very small business owners with just an employee or two, and they are afraid that the rules and regulations for fishing have gotten so restrictive that it’s hard to turn a profit.
Longtime fisherman Chris Voss talks about fishing in terms that Warren Buffett might appreciate. “It’s really about portfolio management,” Voss said, adding that he holds permits to take lobster off the Channel Islands in the winter and then has permits for salmon fishing in Alaska in the summer months. He was about ready to make the big move up north when I caught up with him.
For all of its high costs and restrictions, Santa Barbara remains a key center for commercial fishing along the California coast. That’s partly because the city has maintained public hoists that allow fisherman to bring their catch ashore, as well as separate berths for commercial vessels.
Justin West at Restaurant Julienne is one of the pioneers in the farm-to-table movement. He was along on the tour to learn more about the seasonality of the fishing business because he tweaks his menu each day based on what’s arriving at the dock. Instead of relying on a few seafood staples, the Julienne offerings are highly variable, based on what’s going on at the harbor that day. “We don’t give our diner’s a lot of choice,” he said.
Likewise, Community Seafood is delivering its products direct to consumers who sign up for deliveries on designated days — and agree to take whatever the catch is that day. That means, among other things, teaching consumers that anchovies are for more than caesar salad and pizza.
The local sourcing of seafood has a lot of advantages for fishermen, restaurants and consumers. For fishermen, the ability to sell directly to an end user means higher prices and higher profit margins. “It’s a little more work,” said Voss, to prepare smaller portions or to sell in smaller lots, but it’s clearly worth it.
Also, the chance to develop a relationship with a chef or restaurant owner means a better understanding of market demand and customer needs. And developing relationships between suppliers and customers can create a more sustainable economy in the long run.
Interestingly, both Voss and West are fighting the same competitive battle. Voss has seen the number of individual or small-group boat owners dwindle as larger operations have consolidated fleets and built market share. West has seen a number of local restaurants come under corporate ownership, which then means common provisioning and less farm-to-table sourcing.
Fishermen don’t have the luxury of tearing out their raspberry patches and planting blueberries if market tastes change. They have to take what the sea gives them, which is why getting their catches quickly into the hands of informed customers really matters.
• Contact Henry Dubroff at [email protected]