In these days of well-manicured, paper-pushing people who produce little of intrinsic value, it is a breath of fresh air, albeit salt-tinged sea air, to meet local fisherman Kenny Schmidt.
His hands are large, tanned and gnarled from years of being in a long-term relationship with the natural world of sun, ocean and various creatures therein. His bronzed countenance is deeply etched, the signs of a life lived fully on the water and the laughter and smiles that come easily to him. He’s not quite the “old man” of Hemingway’s Nobel-winning novella, but, like Santiago, Kenny possesses eyes that are “cheerful and undefeated.” One has to have such strong depth of optimism and faith in the future to be a fisherman.
Opportunities are said to come knocking, and for Kenny that is exactly how his fishing career began in 1972: literally with a knock on his boat’s hatch. Kenny had been studying physical education and math in San Diego but found inspiration in the book The Dove, about a young man’s solo circumnavigation of the globe in a boat. Despite never having stepped upon the deck of a boat before, Kenny bought the Twist, which was docked in Santa Barbara, figuring if he couldn’t make it around the world he could at least make it out to the islands. He had moved up the coast and was living onboard his boat in the harbor when the knock of fate came. A fisherman was short a few deckhands and was trying to hunt up some willing bodies. Kenny went and was, essentially, hooked from then on.
Kenny spent years diving for urchin and for abalone when the abalone fishery was thriving along the California coast. However, in the ’90s commercial abalone fishing was shut down when the population dwindled to dangerous levels, teetering on extinction. This was due to several things, including withering foot syndrome and the effects of El Niño.
“During El Niño, it was like a forest fire underwater. It devastated everything,” Kenny reminisced wistfully. Although he misses working that fishery, he doesn’t miss the diving. “It’s hard work. It’s hard on the body.” That hard work also entailed detangling himself from the jaws of numerous elephant seals and daintily weaving his way to the ocean’s surface through the middle of a pod of orcas, hoping they wouldn’t mistake him for an aquatic appetizer.
These days, black cod, a sustainable fishery, is filling Kenny’s current boat, the Sonrisa. He also fills the boat up with marine scientists, taking them out to the islands to do various research projects. “The joint ventures with the scientific community are amazing,” Kenny enthuses. But come summertime, he packs up his gear and heads north to Alaska to spend 40 days fishing for sockeye salmon. He often unloads his catch onto the Cornelia Maria, of “Dangerous Catch” fame, for transport to the processing facilities.
Kenny feels he has been blessed on so many levels. He’s had a successful career on the sea. His house on the Mesa, festooned with sea memorabilia as is de rigueur of any seafarer, overlooks the entire harbor. He shares the love of an amazing woman, Tracey, and is so deeply proud of their five children. His kids are not following in his fishing-boot footsteps, although one of his sons does accompany him on the yearly trek to Alaska.
And that’s fine with Kenny. “I’ve chosen to do it and take the risks so they wouldn’t have to.”