Local Catch connects us to our bay
—and attracts an ardent following
BY PETE RERIG
On the Bay: Stan Bruno gaffing a chinook salmon
“Today the gal at the Monterey Credit Union asked me if ‘Local Catch’ was a dating service!” wrote Oren Frey, co-founder of Local Catch Monterey Bay, in his weekly email to the group’s members one day last spring. “I told her we were all about fish.”
Whether the question itself was intended as a pick-up line, we’ll never know. But the truth is, Local Catch—a wildly successful community supported fishery program that distributes fish in much the same way that a CSA provides vegetables—is about much more than just fish. It’s also about connecting people who care about seafood to its source, and to each other. And ultimately, it’s about protecting our oceans and the sea life and fishermen who depend on them.
“The ocean is a public commons,” says Local Catch co-founder Alan Lovewell. “If there’s anything to come together over, it’s the oceans and the air.”
Foodie confab: a Local Catch potluck.
But how to do that? Lovewell notes that there is nothing more concrete to connect us to the sea than sitting down and eating fish. The problem is that the connection between the eater and the sea often ends with the fish—average consumers have no notion of who catches their fish, or how. They may even blame fishermen for overfishing, which is really much more a failure of society to effectively regulate and manage the fisheries, than the fault of fishermen, Lovewell says. And that makes fishermen a key link between the oceans and the rest of us—and uniquely positioned to help consumers grasp that through our choices, we all have an impact on the oceans.
“Fishermen are out there on the ocean—they’re engaging with it and they’re part of it,” Lovewell says. “When they bring us fish to eat, we become a part of that cycle, that sphere of influence over the oceans.”
MAKING IT ALL HAPPEN
Greg Young is up to his elbows in squid. Literally. Six hundred pounds of it to be exact, all pulled from Monterey Bay just hours ago. And while most of us would be overwhelmed at the prospect of dealing with it, Young—the procurer and processor of Local Catch’s weekly shares—takes it all in stride. For him it’s just another day at the office, and the squid will soon be zipped into plastic bags and ready for delivery to Local Catch members—one bag for small shares, and two bags for family shares.
“We’re off to a great start,” Young says, beaming. “We’ve packed a thousand pounds of sand dabs this year, all hook-and-line caught. It was also an amazing season for Dungeness crab and Chinook salmon—locally smoked—as well as sablefish, Pacific herring, abalone, oysters and white sea bass out of Capitola.
“And after seeing the excitement and enthusiasm of our customers, I truly believe that Frey and Lovewell have created what will be the future of fishing for Monterey Bay.”
A commercial fisherman himself as well as owner of Sandabs restaurant in Scotts Valley, Young is so excited about Local Catch that sometimes he does the work for free. Now that’s dedication. In fact, as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay went to press, Local Catch had signed up 320 members, 60% more than the 200 that they originally sought for their first year—and a lot of the members have come in through word-of-mouth spread by thrilled subscribers. When asked about the special recipe for success in their inaugural year, Young is quick with his response.
“We approach sourcing for Local Catch in the same way someone would go about placing any specific order for a product. We tell fishermen what we need ahead of time, and how much. The fishermen know they have a guaranteed sale. In essence, we’re pulling only what we need from the water, and we’re assured that our customers will be happy.” This, Young notes, helps prevent overfishing. Also, by creating a new market for seafood that is caught with sustainable practices and minimizing the number of middlemen between the fish and the customers, Local Catch is structured to incentivize sustainable fishing while providing the best price possible to local fishermen.
SPREADING THE WORD
While Young is filleting and bagging the seafood that will make its way into shareholders’ blue insulated bags each week, Frey is also hard at work, albeit on the polar opposite side of the business. From his home in Pacific Grove, he’s working tirelessly on the member newsletter, which each week bears the surprise of what has been biting in sufficient quantities for Local Catch to deliver to its members— as well as profiles of the week’s fish and the fishermen who caught it, recipes for the featured fish, and videos of the fishermen catching it and local chefs preparing it. He also includes the survey results that let him know what’s working and what isn’t.
Local Catch founders Oren Frey and Alan Lovewell.
“I love getting feedback from our members,” says Frey, who notes they are being adventurous with their cooking. “It’s clear that a lot of our members are stepping out of their comfort zones, using their weekly shares to be creative. We get photos from people, showing how proud they are of what they’ve prepared, and they tell us about how Local Catch has become a ritual of sorts. Some even combine their shares with other members and have big midweek feasts.
That’s really gratifying.”
What members seem to appreciate most, says Frey, is the support they receive from Local Catch. “We’re doing everything we can to educate people, to give them new ideas for eating seafood within a framework of sustainability. Without a doubt, our members realize how much better this seafood is versus the stuff they get in the supermarket. And when they read our fishermen’s online profiles and see the videos of their fish actually being caught, the enthusiasm is tremendous.”
Of course, such rousing success brings new goals for Local Catch’s second year.
So Frey and Lovewell, who started Local Catch while they were both NOAA Sea Grant Fellows, are tweaking their approach. “We’re trying to get away from exact weights” for each week’s share, Frey says, so that members can receive a maximum variety of seafood, including a mix of expensive and inexpensive choices, with the cost to Local Catch evening out over the course of each month. For example, Local Catch delivers an ample 1 to 2 pounds of fin fish, like halibut, salmon, sablefish and albacore, per small share (two to three people, $20). Family shares (four to six people, $36), contain 2 to 4 pounds of fish.
When Dungeness crab was in season in the first year, two crabs were allocated to the small share, sending the weight up to 4 pounds, and when the seas were too heavy for fishing, small appetizer portions of highly expensive farmed abalone were provided a couple of times. Oysters were also procured from Tomales Bay farmers on some stormy weeks.
“We’ve also learned how to be more precise about what we’re able to provide to members. Moving forward, we’ll be more aware of what is available when, and how weather conditions affect what’s caught. “The Pacific herring is a good example—it’s hard to find and the season for it is very short. But it’s also very sustainable and a great choice for us.”
Chefs at high-end San Francisco Bay restaurants such as Quince and Chez Panisse put herring on their menus when the harvest came in this past winter, but Local Catch found that some of its members had difficulty cooking it. “It’s oily and fishy, and not the easiest thing to prepare. But again, a lot of gratitude came our way for the opportunity to try something different.”
In addition to running Local Catch, both Frey and Lovewell have other jobs in fisheries protection—Frey, with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and Lovewell, with the West Coast Governors Alliance for Ocean Health—and if there is one element of Local Catch’s program that Frey and Lovewell would like to improve, it’s putting the fishermen more front and center.
“We really want them to take ownership of the program, to be more involved with the members,” Frey says. “The fishermen who already provide us with products see what a great thing a CSF is. We want to connect their passion with the customers, who have gained a huge amount of appreciation for what they do. We also want to use
their excitement to recruit new fishermen who share the same mindset.”
It’s Tuesday outside the Pacific Grove Adult Education Center on Lighthouse Avenue, and Cyndra Bradford eyes this week’s share—a bag of Monterey Bay whole squid. “I’m a little nervous,” she says, unsure about how she’ll clean and cook the alien-looking things. “I’ve only been a member for about a month, but I already love pickup day. You never know what you’re going to get—it’s almost like catching a fish yourself!” she says, laughing. Month-long members Ed Midel and CeCe McCoy agree, adding that this is also their first attempt at home-prepared squid. “Local Catch gives such great support, though, so we’re never really worried about what comes in the weekly share,” says CeCe. “It’s such a great operation, and we just love what they’re providing.”
Another member, Alexi Hernandez, is not trepidatious in the least. “I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do with this,” he says, smiling and noting that his wife, Lupita, works at Hopkins Marine Station, a job that provided the impetus for their joining Local Catch on day one. “I think we may stir-fry it or maybe make a salad.” Asked what his favorite aspect of the program is, he says: “The variety and the fact that it’s all sustainable. And the price—you can’t get seafood this fresh and local for what we pay.”
Later, Vicki and John Pearse—two marine biologists wholly devoted to utilizing local seafood and produce—say the week’s delivery of squid was a true delight.
“We used a recipe given to us by our friend Isabella Abbott,” says Vicki, who also works at Hopkins Marine Station. “We like light recipes for squid so this was perfect —a little garlic, green onions, shredded carrots, cilantro from our garden, white wine and breadcrumbs to sop up the liquid. Sauté quickly in a hot pan, and that’s all you need.” The ardent locavores—and Local Catch members for the past four months—paired their dish with brown rice and a medley of vegetables procured from the farmers’ market.
“Local Catch Monterey Bay is more than just a fish market,” Vicki says. “It’s an educational resource, teaching people how to eat more responsibly. And with all the added information—learning about our fishermen, where the fish come from, how to cook different recipes—the whole experience of being a member is just exceptional.” “We love everything about the CSF,” says John, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. “We especially like the contact with the fishermen, and the perspective we gain through that contact. Everyone devoted to eating fresh, sustainable seafood should experience that connection.”
The former managing editor of Charleston magazine and a lifelong foodie and history buff, Monterey resident Pete Rerig works at Museum of Monterey and as a freelance writer.
Local Catch Monterey Bay • www.localcatchmontereybay.com
Photo by Alan Lovewell
Fisherman Christian Zajac: Artist and Environmentalist
The ocean is Chris Zajac’s muse. He makes his living on it, plying the waters for black cod and salmon, sablefish and crab. But it also holds another allure, one he indulges through dramatic oil paintings of the seascape. “I love fishing, and I love art…not many guys in my profession can say that,” says Chris, who was born in Rome, Italy, to artist parents. “The ocean has always held a special attraction for me, even though the Mediterranean and the Pacific couldn’t be more different.” As one of the fishermen supplying Local Catch Monterey Bay, Chris’ passion extends far beyond the bow of his 30-foot, 1932 Monterey wood-hull boat originally built for Joe DiMaggio’s father. “Fishing here is so incredible, so fulfilling,” he says. “Even people I know in Europe can’t comprehend just how fresh our local seafood is, or the vast resource we access. The biomass of our water is beyond compare.”
And yet, Chris—who can often be spotted tooling around Santa Cruz in his “art car” outfitted with a 6-foot orca fin—knows that public perceptions of local fishermen don’t always paint a rosy picture. “Every fisherman I know isn’t looking to become a millionaire by abusing the local fishing grounds. We’re well aware of the dangers of overfishing, and it’s important for people to know that we aren’t callous individuals who don’t care about the environment. Local Catch helps with that, helps educate the public and gives us a connection to those who support us.”
Utilizing solely hook-and-line methods, Chris is very sensitive about the carbon footprint he leaves in his wake. “A lot of what I do is about numbers,” he adds. “I look at how much of an effect on the environment I’m having for the amount of fish I bring to someone’s table. That’s the key—being responsible. I move from fishing ground to fishing ground, making sure I’m not overfishing a particular spot. But in the end, we’re all at the mercy of the weather,” he notes, alluding to a recent period of cold local waters. “Everything out here is cyclical, including what fish is available when. People who sign up for a CSF realize this, and I think they’re ready for both the uncertainty and the great surprises that come each week.”
OTHER FISH IN THE SEA
H&H: Hans Haveman and Heidi Rhodes
Photo by Ted Holladay
H&H Fresh Fish also offers a local CSA-style fish program
Local Catch Monterey Bay is the largest subscription fish delivery program in the region, but it’s not the only one.
Lifelong fisherman Hans Haveman and partner Heidi Rhodes launched what they call a “Community Supported Seafood” program last year, and as this issue of Edible Monterey Bay was going to press, it had signed up more than 100 members.
The program is an outgrowth of Haveman and Rhodes’ 10-year-old family fish distribution business, which has long supplied Santa Cruz and San Francisco Bay-area customers with fresh, sustainably caught fish via farmers’ markets and a catering company.
“This is your spot for sustainable fish,” says Haveman. “Everything we catch is completely sustainable, in my opinion.”
H&H’s program aims to deliver a relatively precise half-pound portion per person, and offers choices ranging from one-serving deliveries (0.5 pound, $10) to six (3 pounds, $45). For members who don’t want to look a squid in the eye, H&H tries to include in their basic shares fish that are familiar to home cooks, like salmon, halibut, sole and sablefish. It allocates the less familiar fish (like squid, spot prawns and whole sardines) to buyers of H&H’s “adventurous foodie” option.
“It makes me excited because it makes people aware of other things out there, including some old-world recipes and techniques,” says Haveman of the “adventurous” shares. H&H delivers its fish subscriptions to drop points in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, and will make house calls for an extra charge. Looking to the future, Haveman would like to supply seafood to more local restaurants, while Rhodes would like to expand the CSS to San Francisco and start offering it to large companies, much as Google offers a CSF to its employees. — EH and SW
Elaine Hesser is a lifelong foodie who’s been cooking since she was six. She loves to write and educate others about seasonal, local food choices.
H&H Fresh Fish • www.hhfreshfish.com