Sardine Science and Cents
Moss Landing Marine Labs dives into the fishing business
Thursday, February 14, 2008
If everything goes according to plan, a few years from now you’ll sashay into a local high-end restaurant and order a plate of lip-smacking sardines. You’ll buy anchovies by the pound at a grocery store’s seafood counter for your company barbecue. You’ll snack on squid – not just as fried calamari, but grilled in salads and tossed with rice.
That’s the hope for Moss Landing Marine Laboratories administrators, who took the unusual step of buying a fish offloading facility on Moss Landing Harbor in 2006. In practical terms, the purchase of the two-acre, $2.2 million property, formerly owned by Del Mar Seafoods, gives MLML a place to moor its research vessel. But it also provides an opportunity for the labs’ researchers to do what they do best: experiment.
The local fishing industry has been struggling with declining fish stocks and ever-tighter state regulations for the past several decades, says MLML Director Kenneth Coale. But as Moss Landing Harbor’s catches of salmon, halibut and rockfish declined, the volume of “wetfish” – including sardines, squid, mackerel and anchovies – increased.
Fish buyers pay less than a nickel per pound for those wetfish, Coale explains, so fishermen have to pile their boats full in order to make a decent living. In business terms, the wetfish industry is a low-value, high-volume market. Coale’s idea is to pay the fishermen up to 10 times the current prices so that they’ll catch fewer wetfish, creating a higher-value, low-volume market in Moss Landing Harbor.
The plan could be a win-win-win-win-win, Coale reasons – benefiting the local economy, human health, ocean research, the marine ecosystem, and even the atmosphere. “I think it can be done in a way that will reduce the amount of fish harvested, increase the value of the fishery and keep jobs in Moss Landing,” he says.
Then again, this is the first time a marine research institute has gotten into the fishing business, to Coale’s knowledge. “That’s why I need a reality check here,” he says.
From a marine biology perspective, the high-volume wetfish industry depletes food sources for Central Coast species such as birds, sea lions, salmon, and whales. And some of the food taken from wildlife is used to feed farm animals, including farmed fish. While squid is generally processed overseas for human consumption, sardines are mainly marketed as bulk protein for agricultural feed.
If MLML can create a stronger local market in table-quality wetfish, Coale figures, then buyers can pay more for it. That might encourage fishermen to harvest less, while cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels. If the plan works in Moss Landing, it might serve as a model for sustainable wetfish fishing elsewhere.
With a business planning grant from the Coastal Conservancy, the labs hired Fredric Kropp, a private consultant and marketing professor at Monterey Institute for International Studies, to analyze the feasibility of running the offloading facility for long-term biological and economic sustainability. The key challenge is creating a bigger local demand for table-quality wetfish. Sardines are popular as high-end consumer food in Europe and other parts of the world, according to Kropp’s draft report, but Monterey sardines most often end up as canned products for export.
The sardines caught at Moss Landing might fetch higher prices, Kropp’s report speculates, if they’re frozen immediately after capture, marinated and smoked, or “niche” canned in the style of the French, which raises their chi-chi quotient. Coale speculates that locally caught sardines could be sold at Whole Foods Market and served in California State University cafeterias. (MLML serves seven Cal State campuses.)
There’s a potential academic benefit: Lab researchers could collect data on the catch, and MLML’s dock could berth other research vessels. “I think there’s great benefit in being able to more closely integrate the science and the fishery,” Coale says. “It’s a way of putting our ethics into reality.”
Coale sees the venture boosting the economy in MLML’s hometown of Moss Landing, which he jokingly calls “a friendly little drinking town with a fishing problem.” And it could also benefit public health. Wetfish, known as “coastal pelagics” because they swim near the ocean’s surface along the coast, are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury.
But it’s not a simple proposition, says Carrie Pomeroy, marine advisor for the California Sea Grant extension program. Squid and sardines are among the top-volume fisheries in the state, and fishermen are accustomed to catching lots of them, she explains. Even if the buyers at MLML’s facility pay more for a smaller volume, fishermen may simply take the remainder of their loads to other buyers.
“There’s a lot of pride in this kind of community in bringing a full boat to the dock,” Pomeroy says. “There’s no guarantee [the labs’ plan] will effectively reduce the amount of fish landed at Moss Landing Harbor.”On a recent afternoon, sea lions cool off in the water by MLML’s new property across the street from Phil’s Fish Market. Fishing vessels outfitted for bottom-trawling bob idly in the harbor. Cargo boxes and clunky offloading equipment line the rickety dock. Across the water, the Moss Landing power plant’s stacks exhale a steady white cloud.
MLML’s scientists currently use a small boat dock on the property for research diving operations, while Del Mar Seafoods continues to lease the adjacent offloading facility. Coale hopes to keep renting the space to wetfish buyers, with minimum prices and maximum volumes written into the leases.
The labs will invest in major infrastructure improvements to the dock and the offloading equipment, Coale says, with the hope of berthing MLML’s research vessel, Point Sur – which currently harbors at MBARI’s neighboring dock.
For now, however, Coale and his associates are still working out the details. The business plan is due to the Coastal Conservancy by late March.