Revitalizing California's fishing communities

Using the California Fisheries Fund to support sustainable fishing

Five years ago, the once-thriving fishing industry in Morro Bay, CA, had all but disappeared. Trawlers no longer came into port to unload fish at the dock. The processors and tackle stores were shuttered.

Today, fishing has returned, but with a crucial difference. Now, fishermen are working more selectively, using traps and lines instead of large nets. Catches are smaller, but the fish — local, fresh and sustainably caught — command a higher price. Demand for locally caught, premium seafood, like Morro Bay black cod, is strong.

This turnaround was aided by EDF and the California Fisheries Fund (CFF), a revolving loan program we and our partners launched in 2008 to promote sustainable fishing and rebuild the West Coast’s struggling fisheries.

Filling a critical need and supporting healthy oceans

For decades, California’s fishing industry has teetered on the financial brink as costs rose, catches plummeted and banks grew increasingly unwilling to extend loans to fishermen. That’s where the Fisheries Fund comes in.

“If you’re a fisherman and need more sustainable gear for your boat or want to upgrade your boat, it’s next to impossible to get a loan from a traditional bank,” says EDF’s Phoebe Higgins, the fund’s Project Manager and Loan Officer. “Before the fund, there was no other source of capital for fishery reform on the West Coast.”

The fund offers low-interest loans to fishing businesses to buy equipment or improve infrastructure that supports the catching, marketing or processing of eco-friendly seafood. These investments helped West Coast trawl fisheries make the transition to catch shares in January 2011.

How one company got a boost from loans

One of the fund’s first loans was to the Morro Bay Fish Company, owned by Brett Cunningham, a third-generation fisherman. The company is the main buyer of sustainably caught fish at the Morro Bay dock.

“When I started my company a few years ago, fishermen could not sell much of the fish they were catching,” says Cunningham. Boats would have to send their catch by truck to one of the few large processors within a few hours’ drive — for an ever-diminishing price per pound.

CFF provided the Morro Bay Fish Company with a $50,000 line of credit, as well as a 5-year, $75,000 loan for capital expenditures such as remodeling its freezer and building a hoist on the dock.

“Without the loans, Morro Bay Fish Company might not be there to unload fish,” says Higgins. “The infrastructure is a key piece of the seafood supply chain that enables fishermen to bring local seafood to market.”

Creating a new market framework

Most of the seafood Americans consume, from shrimp to Chilean seabass to orange roughy, is imported from countries where environmental standards may be lax or poorly enforced. But many people want fresh, seasonal fish that is harvested sustainably and close to home.

“One of the benefits of dealing with EDF and the California Fisheries Fund,” says Cunningham, “is that we’re working with new markets that are willing to pay more for high-quality, sustainable seafood.”

A model for the future of fishing

The California Fisheries Fund chose Morro Bay because local fishermen were committed to sustainable fishing practices. They are 100% compliant with conservation targets. They’ve also reduced bycatch, the wasteful catch of unwanted species, to nearly zero.

In 2005, working with EDF and The Nature Conservancy, these fishermen helped protect 6,000 square miles of spectacular ocean territory in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from trawling. The area is one of the few places on Earth where upwelling water from the ocean floor distributes huge amounts of nutrients, supporting a vast array of ocean wildlife.

“This city was built on fishing,” says Brett Cunningham, a third-generation Morro Bay fisherman. “We want to make fishing sustainable and profitable again.”

no-trawl map

Nearly 6,000 square miles of prime habitat is protected from trawling.