The commercial salmon fishing season along the Central Coast is about to launch. California’s fishing industry is designated as essential by Governor Gavin Newsom, but their usual markets, restaurants, are all but shut down because of the coronavirus. That’s spelling trouble for local fishermen and women. Still, some believe there’s a silver lining to this crisis.
David Toriumi has been commercially fishing the Monterey Bay for almost 16 years. It’s a livelihood full of challenges, from rigorous and expensive regulations to changing ocean conditions. But the coronavirus is like nothing he’s seen before. Toriumi says the impact was slow at first, less people eating out, and then boom.
“People stopped buying crab,” Toriumi said. “People stopped buying black cod. People stopped coming out to dock sales. Everyone started, obviously, to shelter-in-place.”
According to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, 80 percent of US-caught seafood that’s consumed domestically (not exported) is sold to restaurants. But those restaurants are closed or only offering carry out due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements and stay-at-home orders.
Toriumi, a father of two young boys, says bills are piling up. No one is sure how the markets will behave during this year’s salmon season.
“What are people going to be ready for this next month or even June?” Toriumi said. “Are they going to be going out to restaurants? Are they going to be going to supermarkets and buying salmon?”
He hopes this crisis is a wake-up call for people to support the mom-and-pop stores down the road and Monterey Bay fishermen and women.
“We are your neighbors,” Toriumi said. “We are your neighbors and at times like this, we have something to provide for you.”
Since 2014, the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust has been working to revitalize the region’s historic, local seafood industry. The nonprofit collaborates with local, commercial fishing businesses and stakeholders, from harbormasters to chefs to fishermen like Toriumi.
Sherry Flumerfelt is the executive director of the Fisheries Trust. She says between 60 and 90 percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is imported.
“This whole crisis with COVID-19 has really brought home this reality of this dependency on these international supply chains and these commodities,” Flumerfelt said. “And when it breaks down, you know, where does that leave us?”
She says now, there’s an opportunity for communities to prioritize buying local.
“We are in this fortunate place where we have this amazing, fresh, sustainable local seafood right here in our backyard,” said Flumerfelt.
The Fisheries Trust has compiled a local catch guide on their website, showing where people can buy locally-caught seafood. It’s also trying to help fishermen and women navigate government aid. The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, or CARES Act, allocates $300 million for fisheries and aquaculture.
One sector of the industry that’s taken off recently is community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. Members pay for a share of seafood, which is delivered directly to their home or a pick-up spot. It’s a business model that’s working during the coronavirus.
Charlie Lambert is co-owner of Ocean2Table, a CSF based in Santa Cruz.
“Our goal and mission is to increase access to locally, fresh-caught fish right here from the Monterey Bay,” Lambert said. “And with that, tell the story about how the fish is caught and empower the local fishermen, educate the consumer.”
He says while their deliveries to restaurants in Santa Cruz County and the Bay Area are down about 90 percent, home deliveries have doubled over the past few weeks. Local California halibut, fly-line chili pepper rockfish and black cod have been in their delivery boxes. To help other local businesses get their products distributed, Ocean2Table has partnered with area farms and local eateries. Citrus, carrots, chard, sourdough bread and coffee have also been available for purchase.
“Spatially, we have to be apart from each other,” Lambert said. “But we also have to come together as a community. And so by partnering with these local businesses that community energy and feeling is there.”
Energy the local fishing industry hopes will continue far beyond the coronavirus.