Fish Out of Water

The city is offering the Pennisi family wharf space, but John Pennisi says it’s not enough to process groundfish like Petrale sole and lingcod.

Monterey fisherman John Pennisi spent the weekend in Ensenada, Mexico, supervising work on his trawler Irene’s Way, the final step in a million-dollar refurbishment. He drove back on Tuesday, June 11 and the next day boarded a flight to Denmark. In the city of Thyboron, he will meet with a fishnet manufacturer to complete a $150,000 purchase. “They don’t have our kind of fish over there so we have to make sure the netting would be legal here,” Pennisi says.

He’s aiming to partake in the dramatic resurgence of many West Coast fisheries, which only 15 years ago federal regulators declared a “disaster.” As the owner of his own boat and the holder of fishing quota and a trawling permit, Pennisi is one of the few who are well positioned for the expected groundfish boom.

Until a few months ago, Pennisi thought he would land his fish at Monterey’s Wharf II and market them locally as his family had done going back more than 50 years. He was waiting for the city to offer his family a long-term wharf lease to enable investments in infrastructure like an ice machine.

But instead, in August, the city launched a competitive bidding process for two spaces long occupied by the family: one would be designated for wetfish like squid and anchovy, and the other for the processing of groundfish. This came as a shock to Pennisi who says the city had encouraged him to stay put through the fishing bust and uphold Monterey’s fishing tradition.

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The Pennisis joined with Silver Bay Seafoods, an Alaska-based cooperative with market clout, in a new corporate entity, Royal Seafoods, LLC, to submit bids for both spaces. But city staff disqualified their groundfish proposal because it included a pump for wetfish offloading. Pennisi feels that he has been pushed out and vows to take his fish elsewhere. “The city just lost a 100-percent local fisherman,” he says.

Monterey City Manager Hans Uslar declines to comment on Pennisi’s remarks but says the city has amended its wharf plans in order to accommodate all bidders. Under a “compromise solution,” Royal Seafoods will occupy the wetfish space, and four other companies will use other areas. Lusamerica, a Morgan Hill-based distributor, will take the groundfish space; and Camarillo-based Southern Cal Seafoods will operate the wharf’s southern wetfish pump, which was not part of the original request for proposals. Del Mar Seafoods, a squid specialist from Watsonville, will share the long-vacant warehouse at the end of the wharf with membership-based vendor Real Good Fish, based in Moss Landing.

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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