The Faces of Fishing

boats harborLocal fishing family hopes to bring the Fishermen’s Association into the 21st century

Exposure to the elements, manual labor, and sleepless shifts that can last for days on end make fishing a rare career aspiration in this digital day and age. In fact, Captain Joe Stoops, the newly appointed president of the Santa Cruz Commercial Fishermen’s Association (SCCFA), calls his much-loved career “a thing of the past” and says he went through 14 deck hands in 2011 alone.

“There’s not a lot of young kids getting into this,” he says. “People don’t have calluses anymore.”

Stoops, motioning with his visibly callused hands, adds that the amount of fishermen in Santa Cruz today is less than a third of the number present 20 years ago.

However, as Stoops takes his position as president of the SCCFA and his wife, Raina Stoops, becomes secretary, the couple is doing all they can to improve the future of the local commercial fishing community.

Stoops has worked as a small-scale fisherman in Santa Cruz since 1968 and has been a member of the SCCFA, which operates similarly to a union representing the needs and voice of the commercial sector of fishermen in Santa Cruz, since 1993. He now supports his wife and their two children via fishing.

While the life of a fisherman is less popular today than in previous years, Stoops says he and the other few “lifers” love it deeply, and for many reasons.

He can recall holding his first fishing pole at the age of 3, and today he tears up just talking about his connection with the ocean—or so says Raina.

news1 fish trap“He has to be on, in or very close to the ocean,” she says, adding that Stoops is also a surfer. “It’s very emotional to him.”

Stoops says his deck hand, a young married man with two kids, equates crab fishing with fishing for treasure and considers everyday an adventure.

“It’s being in control of your own life and your own destiny … it’s water,” Stoops says. “There’s no retirement in this industry, there’s no benefits. … Your benefit is how you’re living every day.”

Increased costs of coastal living, regulatory changes and development have all taken their toll on the local fishing community, leaving in many places a mere shadow of the industry that just 15 to 20 years ago thrived.

The Stoops are younger than many of the SCCFA members, most of whom are in their late 60s through 80s, and the two take their positions with the intention of bringing the local fishing industry up to speed with the 21st century and connecting the local fishing community with the larger public.

Today’s global fishing industry is increasingly run by multinational corporate entities with enormous boats that catch huge amounts of fish. This model does not support small-scale fishermen or sustainable seafood.

“Ninety-five percent of California’s fishermen work for small, family-owned businesses. The Stoops point out that because California has more fishing regulations than anywhere in the world, these small family-owned businesses do not wreak the environmental havoc many attribute to the commercial fishing industry.”

“[The public] perception [of fishermen], especially in the Monterey Bay, is of a very ugly people that are just raping and pillaging the ocean,” says Stoops. “In reality, especially in this group of fishermen here, we have been the stewards of the ocean, fishing conservatively and sustainably since day one.”

Raina adds that the SCCFA encourages regulations as long as they are well thought out.

“It only benefits us to fish sustainably because if we don’t, then we don’t have a career, we have no product,” she says. “For small, local fishing families, we want to sustain our oceans because the ocean is more to us than just a walk along a beautiful beach like it may be for a tourist. To us, it’s our family’s life.”

Melissa Stevens has never been a fisherman or part of a fishing family, but she, too, thinks local family fisheries are the key to sustainable seafood. Stevens is the media and marketing coordinator for Faces of California Fishing, a website dedicated to shedding light on the local fishing communities that dot California’s coast. The website is managed by the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fishing (ACSF).

“Local fishermen are the key to sustainability of the seafood resources in California’s waters,” Stevens says in an email to GT. “’Sustainable’ is a tricky word, and means different things to different people. It’s really a moving target—but to truly be achieved, it has to include a balance between sustaining the fish and the people who fish.”

Stevens graduated from Moss Landing Marine Labs with an M.S. in marine science in 2002, and then worked for the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. She became increasingly interested in the human aspects of local fisheries and eventually met fishermen in Moss Landing to develop a fisheries education project for local youth.

“From there, I was hired by Carrie Pomeroy of California Sea Grant Extension Program to work on a social science project looking at how Central and North Coast fishing communities have changed over time,” she says.

Last summer, Steve Scheiblauer of the ACSF approached her about working with Faces of California Fishing.

Stevens says Santa Cruz is unique because there is almost no physical presence of a commercial fishery at the harbor, yet several fishermen who call Santa Cruz home continue to make a living fishing—just not locally.

“On any given day, you’d be hard pressed to see fish moving across the docks, and that is a problem for fishermen who want to stay local,” she says. “The old-timers are still there and land occasionally, but there is a new group coming in who wants to shake things up a bit,” she says in reference to the Stoops. “They are willing to look at different market channels, engage with the public, speak constructively on tough issues, and do what they can to persevere in this industry.”

Stoops says part of the reason he and Raina are intent on achieving these goals is that they know first hand that local fishermen in Santa Cruz can feel ostracized by the community at large.

“I love Santa Cruz to death and I want to like it, but we’ve been so shunned here,” says Stoops. “We haven’t done anything wrong this whole time and it’s almost like being in prison for 20 years for no reason … The way it’s regulated now there is no unsustainable fishery that comes through this harbor.”

In addition, the Santa Cruz Harbor’s facilities are not as conducive to fishing as in nearby regions, and many fishermen that live in town, including Stoops, have chosen to work out of places like Moss Landing and Half Moon Bay. One of the Stoops’ goals is to work with the Harbor Committee to bring fisheries back to the Santa Cruz harbor.

According to Stevens, more than 80 percent of seafood eaten in the United States is imported from other countries, many of which have lower standards for environmental health, pesticide use, and antibiotic use than California. She points out that the issue at hand is more than a question of people deciding to shop locally, because the local sourcing has to start at the buyer level.

“The most local name in seafood, Stagnaro’s, doesn’t source all [of] its seafood locally or even nationally,” she says. “It can’t [in order] to fulfill demand. That’s why it’s so important for seafood consumers to become curious about where their fish actually came from. And maybe think about getting brave and trying a [Community Supported Fishery] and buying off the boat.” She adds that there are a few of these boats in Santa Cruz, but most are out of Half Moon Bay.

Stoops adds that many local fish buyers feel forced to outsource due to regulations and public demand.

“A lot of people who have been locally buying fish over the years want what they want when they want it, and the local product wasn’t available so they imported stuff,” he says. “So now that’s pretty much what buyers around here have to do to be to stay alive. [They are] more focused on being sustainable than they are on buying local because it’s been hard for us to supply that market.”

Raina adds that, at this point she thinks local fishermen can produce enough fish, but do not have enough people wanting to buy the product. She urges people in Santa Cruz and beyond to shop locally and consider the carbon footprint of imported seafood.

“To bring fish in from Canada and Alaska, or even from Oregon and Washington, you’ve got airplanes, trucks and fuel,” she says. “It’s stupid to import what we have here, and it’s just really wasteful.”

Stevens parallels the benefits of the organic, sustainable grocery food and produce movement with the benefits of switching to local seafood.

“If people do not begin to recognize and value the difference between bassa catfish tacos from China and true rockcod tacos—rockfish, or Pacific red snapper caught along the West Coast—then we will miss out on the chance to have some of the most healthy and sustainable seafood anywhere,” she says.

“What’s more,” she adds, “we miss the chance to support people working hard right here in our own communities to provide this seafood. We all know how cool it is to buy local, to know your farmer or fishmonger, to keep your dollars local. Seafood is part of our local foodshed, food movement.”  

Visit Faces of California Fishing online at facesofcaliforniafishing.com. Photos: Melissa Stevens

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