Walter Deyerle, captain of the F/V SeaHarvest IV, explains the basics of the process he and his crew undertake to land sablefish in the waters of the Monterey Bay.
First they lay out a long line, usually set with 2,000 pre-baited hooks, on rods that carry 250 hooks each. The hooks are set 18 inches apart and once the lines are dropped, they expand over about two-thirds of a mile over the sea floor.
Three hours later, the lines are pulled back onto the boat.
“And hopefully,” Deyerle says, “there’s a lot of fish on them.”
A lot of fish means something different during the Covid-19 pandemic. Restaurants are ordering less because there are fewer customers. Exports to Japan are down, because they too have less demand. But when fishing is your life’s work – as it is for Deyerle and his entire family, with aunts and uncles who own the Sea Harvest restaurants, his father running a fish-processing plant while working alongside Walt and his brother, also a commercial fisherman – there has to be a way to get local catch into local bellies.
“We’ve had to diversify our markets. We’ve been able to work through this crisis, which we’re extremely grateful for,” Deyerle says, “because I can’t imagine not being able to work.
“Prices are down, and we’re getting two-thirds to half of what we were getting before. But we feel like the blessed ones. We’re the lucky ones.”
With work and fish available, the question became a matter of how to do that work and get fish to people, and still make some money. A new grant-funded program spearheaded by the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust will bring those moving parts together.
Called the Monterey Bay Community Seafood Program, the effort involves seven small-scale seafood buyers donating local catch to food assistance programs. The trust leveraged a $50,000 grant from Catch Together, a project of under the fiscal sponsorship of Multiplier.
Under the program, seafood buyers receive funds to purchase fish from local fishermen, and then donate the catch to local food assistance programs, providing high-quality protein including rockfish, California halibut, the aforementioned sablefish and grenadier.
Among the participants, other than Sea Harvest: Real Good Fish, Ocean2Table, H&H Fresh Fish, Fishermen’s Choice, Robbie’s Ocean Fresh Seafood and Bay Fresh Seafood. The emergency food programs receiving the fish include the Food Bank for Monterey County, Meals on Wheels of the Monterey Peninsula, Al and Friends and Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes. The trust is also working with the city of Seaside and Monterey County through the state’s Great Plates Delivered program, a meal delivery service for seniors at high risk from Covid-19.
“There’s been a total market disruption in the seafood industry,” says Sherry Flumerfelt, executive director of the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust. “It hasn’t broken completely, but the industry lost a lot of their market, especially for the little guys who fish out of Monterey Bay ports.”
Catch Together reached out and said they were doing a food bank-style program and wondered if the Monterey Bay area needed something like it. Flumerfelt gave a resounding yes.
“Unfortunately, food security is a challenge right now and demand has quadrupled,” she says. “It seemed like a great way to support the fishing community and the community at large.”
Under the program rules, the initial $50,000 grant has to be spent by the end of January. After that, Flumerfelt says the MBFT hopes to fundraise to keep the program active. “The need is not going to go away,” she says.
At nonprofit Pajaro Valley Loaves and Fishes, which serves a hot lunch five days a week and serves about 1,000 households a month, director Ashley Bridges says the gift of high-quality protein is a welcome treat.
Once holiday leftovers are depleted, Kitchen Manager Maria Gonzalez plans on serving sablefish fillets on rice, as well as fish tacos. Clients picking up food to prepare at home will receive detailed instructions on safe handling and preparation.
“Maria is very skilled at using what we have,” Bridges says. “We’re so excited to be a part of this and to offer this kind of protein to our pantry clients.”