What would Santa Barbara be without our vibrant harbor? An authentic, working waterfront is a rarity for California coastal towns these days, not to mention one that seamlessly integrates with the heavy recreation and tourism uses of our harbor. Achieving this dynamic balance of uses in a tight space against a gorgeous mountain backdrop has incalculable value for the quality of life and tourist draw it creates. Keeping our commercial fisheries in business is key to preserving this unique slice of Santa Barbara.
Our local fishing fleet is small but mighty, having survived a long string of economic challenges over the past decades as seafood trade went global, aquaculture exploded, key fishing grounds were closed for conservation, and most seafood processing left town. Our fisheries today are entirely small owner-operated vessels, 140-180 boats in all, and strictly managed for environmental sustainability. In addition to supplying our own community with a staggering diversity of healthy and high quality local seafood, what keeps our fishing port going is access to global markets. In particular, 3 Santa Barbara fisheries, spiny lobster, sea urchin and sea cucumber are renowned across Asia as the finest source for these delicacies. The high prices commanded by these products keep all of the fisheries operating out of our port, supporting dockside infrastructure and creating a critical mass of fishing operations.
Spiny lobster harvest represents a third of the economic value of Santa Barbara’s local catch. Across 20 ports in Southern California, the Spiny Lobster fishery employs ~160 owner-operated fishing vessels and their crew. All of these boats are small, family run businesses. With a 6-month open season, many lobster fishermen also hold jobs in a diverse array of sectors, including health care, construction, real estate and food service. The lobster fishery generated $13.7 million in ‘dockside’ value in 2016 for California, and supports several large processing and transshipment businesses targeting growing domestic and export markets.
The Spiny Lobster fishery is strong and healthy overall, but has critical challenges facing its future related to climate change and global market competition, with possible ripple effects throughout our coastal economy. To prepare for these challenges, our local port association, Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, partnered with Assemblywoman Monique Limón on AB944, authorizing the formation of a Spiny Lobster Marketing Commission. Sea urchin, another critical export fishery, formed a Marketing Commission by the same process several years ago.
These Marketing Commissions enable producers to form a board and enact a self-assessed fee to support personnel tasked with keeping strong lines of communication, both within the distributed fleet and with regulators and buyers. The organizational capacity allows the fishery to more rapidly adapt to changing markets, regulations and environmental dynamics. A Commission can proactively explore ways to improve fishery resilience, pursue strategies to diversify market access, and fund research. For example, the Spiny Lobster Commission can be a hub for outreach on best practices to avoid gear loss, which is on the rise as winter storm intensities increase, and collaboration with environmental NGO’s on smart phone-based on-the-water fishery monitoring systems.
Due to the many benefits that a Spiny Lobster Commission will bring, AB944 has broad support from groups like The Nature Conservancy, the City of Santa Barbara, and our Chamber of Commerce. AB944 garnered consistent bi-partisan support as it made its way through committees and the Senate, and Governor Brown is slated to sign it into law shortly. There is much positive work to do to keep our flagship fisheries like Spiny Lobster strong and resilient in the face of future challenges. Providing resources for bottom-up organizational capacity of a Marketing Commission is a key tool for success.
Kim Selkoe and Chris Voss