Conservation & Science

Sustainable local fisheries: the triple bottom line

For as long as humans have lived along Monterey Bay, they’ve found sustenance in the sea. Beginning with the native Ohlone people, and persisting through the arrival of immigrants from the 18th century onward, fishing has always been at the heart of Monterey Bay’s regional identity.

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Monterey harbor. Photo by Melissa Mahoney

“Many immigrants, upon first arrival, went immediately to the shore and began to try and figure out how to make a living from the bay’s bounty,” says Sandy Lydon, emeritus historian at Cabrillo College.

But today, most of the fish sold on Monterey’s own wharves is imported. Paradoxically, the fish caught and landed in Monterey Bay is largely sold for export.

Fisheries in Monterey Bay, as in much of the U.S., are finally sustainable from an environmental standpoint. But in order to preserve our region’s fishing heritage, we need to make it economically worthwhile, too.

At the Aquarium, we want to help keep sustainable fishing in Monterey Bay by demonstrating what we call the triple bottom line: sustainable fisheries, healthy ocean ecosystems and a thriving local economy.

Getting there, however, is a challenge.

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The Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust Board of Directors

Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust

Taking a cue from its Fishing Community Sustainability Plan, in 2014 the City of Monterey, the Aquarium and other leaders in the local fishing community created the noprofit Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. The goal: to revive Monterey Bay’s sustainable fishing economy.

In order to preserve the region’s historical fishing rights, the Trust bought a significant portion of the commercial groundfish quota—including sanddabs, lingcod, sablefish, flounder and dozensof rockfish species—that had been fished by crews out of Monterey Bay. If it hadn’t done that, the quota could have been snapped up by big fleet operators elsewhere on the West Coast, and local fishermen could have lost the potential to fish and land their catch here.

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Joey Pennisi of the F/V Pioneer unloads Monterey Bay groundfish in Moss Landing.

The Trust leases its quota out to local fishermen, helping sustain their livelihoods while also supporting waterfront businesses that benefit from fishing.

But retaining the quota is only part of the solution. The Trust is also working to make it easier for local fishermen to find customers in the local market, so chefs and restaurants can easily source and serve up a taste of Monterey Bay to their clientele.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Well—to borrow a phrase from Facebook, it’s complicated.

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Deck boss Joeleen Lambert holds a chilipepper rockfish on the F/V Pioneer.

Keeping Monterey Bay seafood in the local economy

It might seem logical that people should have access to the fish off their own shorelines. That’s what Real Good Fish, a Seafood Watch business partner, aims to do. It’s the seafood equivalent of a veggie box: Each week, subscribers receive a share of fresh and seasonal Central Coast seafood from local, sustainable sources.

But it can be hard, even for folks who live right beside the bay, to access that same local catch in other ways. That’s because Monterey Bay fishermen can’t just pull up to the dock, haul out their catch on a local wharf and sell it directly to local customers at a fair price. High financing and compliance costs,  stagnant wholesale prices and a lack of up-to-date processing and storage facilities have forced local fishermen to sell most of their catch overseas.

Last year, the Aquarium supported a successful grant proposal to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and pitched in some additional money, to help the Trust figure out a way to help.

One promising idea: a fish hub where locally caught seafood from many boats could be sold in one place, whether online or on the dock.

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Filleting fresh Monterey Bay groundfish

The goal is to help fishermen receive a higher price for their groundfish, while ensuring that the region’s restaurants, retailers and other customers have easier access to sustainable Monterey Bay seafood.

The fish hub is still in the planning stages; we’ll see what the study’s findings show later this year. In the meantime, Aquarium Chef Matt Beaudin is trying out new ways to source local fish for our in-house restaurant, which is now serving seafood exclusively from the Seafood Watch green list. This includes groundfish caught by local fishermen in Monterey Bay.

The Trust will continue exploring the fish hub concept and other projects. The unifying goal is to raise the value of Monterey Bay’s sustainable seafood and make it available for more people to enjoy.

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Panelists discuss the challenges facing West Coast fishermen at the screening of Of the Sea at the Aquarium.

Taking fish to the movies

As part of our effort to build public support for local fisheries, on March 3, the Aquarium and the Trust co-hosted a screening of the movie Of the Sea. The film tells the story of five commercial fishermen who, with other entrepreneurs, are creating new business models in a changing global economy—and overcoming the challenges of complex regulations and competition from cheaper seafood imports around the globe.

More than 200 people attended, including several generations of the Monterey fishing community, local elected officials, restaurant owners, chefs, marine scientists and fisheries managers.

After the screening, a panel discussion  featured Seafood Watch Program Engagement Manager Ryan Bigelow, Real Good Fish founder Alan Lovewell, film co-producer Mischa Hedges, local fisherman Mike Ricketts and Trust board member David Crabbe. Melissa Mahoney of the Environmental Defense Fund, a film co-producer and Trust board member, moderated the discussion about the challenges facing today’s fishermen.

The Of the Sea Take Action Guide includes some easy steps people can take to support sustainable fisheries—like enjoying seafood in season, buying locally-caught and processed fish, and following the Seafood Watch recommendations.

Working together, the Aquarium and our partners are pursuing the vision of a triple win: strong local economies, sustainable fishing and a healthy ocean. If we succeed, a 10,000-year tradition of local fishing for local people can continue to thrive on the shores of Monterey Bay.

-Kera Abraham Panni


Learn more about the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust

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