GUILT-FREE FISH
Buy abundant local fish to support ocean conservation and local families
BY K.J. JOHNSTON

Hoisting a wide tray of locally caught and freshly cut albacore filets, Captain Mark Tognazzini slides the glistening pink fish into the seafood case at Dockside Too on the Morro Bay waterfront – right between trays brimming with blackgill rockfish and petrale sole, alongside halibut, ling cod, and black cod, all landed off San Luis Obispo County’s coast by local fishermen.


Masts of moored fishing boats punctuate the sea breeze on the estuary as he tells a visitor, “This albacore was just caught by a local boat, using hooks and lines. It’s my email customers’ special, at $7.95 a pound.”

Capt. Tognazzini is one of the savvy local retailers and restaurant-owners tapping a growing market for local seafood, as more and more consumers turn away from imported fish caught in unregulated waters. He maintains an ever-increasing email list to let his customers know each week what kinds of fresh fish he has to offer, and which local fishermen caught it.

By his estimation, with today’s stringent state and federal regulations, any seafood caught off California’s coast can now be considered sustainable – “or we wouldn’t be allowed to catch it.”
Scientists and conservationists back him up. “We’re lucky in California. There’s been a lot of effort to rebuild depleted stocks,” says Mary Gleason, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s marine research program in the state.

Research published recently in Science magazine showed that California’s coast is one of five areas in the world where once-depleted fish stocks are rebounding, thanks to new, successful efforts to manage the fisheries. In San Luis Obispo County, the drive for sustainability is even more far-reaching. It’s aimed at keeping the local fishing community afloat along with taking care of the fishery resource. An unusual partnership to do just that is sailing along, with fishermen from Morro Bay and Port San Luis, conservation groups, scientists, and even regulators all hopping onboard.

Participants say the community effort is going well. “We’re really testing a more collective, collaborative approach, to avoid overfished species and target abundant species. We’re transforming the fishery to minimize habitat impacts and minimize bycatch rates [the catching of unintended species],” explains Michael Bell, The Nature Conservancy’s program manager in Morro Bay.

As state and federal regulators come up with complex new rules and new policies designed to manage West Coast fisheries, SLO County is on the leading edge. Local groups are working to receive the regulators’ blessing later this autumn for an official – and unique – community-based fishing association. The goal: keep local fishermen fishing in a more environmentally and economically sustainable fishery.

The Nature Conservancy is also studying whether trawling, where nets are dragged along the ocean floor to catch bottom-dwelling sole, can be done with minimum impacts to the sandy-bottomed fishing grounds off SLO County. A robotlike deep-water remote operated vehicle, or ROV, is helping out with the study, by sending up pictures of what’s happening deep below the surface. Marine reserves and protected areas, off-limits to commercial fishing, have also been set up off SLO County by the state, aimed at protecting the marine environment and enhancing long-term fisheries.

These efforts all translate to good news for conservation-minded locavores. “There are great products out of the local fishery,” says Bell, adding, “Head to Morro Bay.” He sings the praises of black cod, also called sablefish or butterfish, an abundant local fish he calls “absolutely fabulous.” The oily fish is very high in Omega-3, and requires different preparation than other fish. “This is an awesome resource to have available to us. If you learn how to cook it well, it’s amazing. It’s an absolute delicacy in Japan,” he says.

Many local rockfish species are also abundant off our coastline. Although they are often collectively marketed as “red snapper,” each species has its own unique flavor, texture, and even shelf life. Failing to differentiate between them is like calling everything that comes out of the garden by the same name, even though bok choy is very different from arugula, according to Bell.

Halibut is another abundant and “highly regulated” fish, he notes, adding that fishermen are “really restricted” as to where they can catch it. “It’s known as being a pretty darn clean fishery,” he adds. “This is all great for locavores. There are some good products coming in, and more to come,” says Bell.

At Dockside Too, a steady stream of customers comes in to buy fresh fish from Tognazzini’s case to take home to their kitchens or barbecues, while others choose to let the staff cook up the latest catch so they can enjoy it outdoors in the casual, dog-friendly environment on the deck. Pelicans glide over the water at eye level, sea otters and harbor seals swim by, and Morro Rock hulks in the background. It’s the working end of the Morro Bay waterfront, near the big ice-making facility and the offices of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol. Fishermen pull up to unload their catch.

Tognazzini says local consumers should be willing to adapt their menu to what’s local and what’s available, similar to farmers markets. “Be in tune,” he advises. “If it’s been windy on the ocean for seven days, we may not have a lot of fish available.” People who want to eat local fish, whether they’re buying it from a market or a restaurant, should educate themselves about the resource. Learn how to use the most abundant species if you’re doing the cooking, he advises. “Ask whoever sells the fish its origin, its species, its true name, and the reality of where that fish is from,” he says. “You always have to be careful of imported products, because they’re not held to the same standards.

“Build trust in whoever you buy fish from. The staff should be knowledgeable,” Tognazzini continues. Like Bell, he believes the 60 different varieties of local rockfish should be sold as their own species, rather than lumped together as “red snapper.”

His personal favorite fish? Almost any kind of rockfish, especially vermilion rockfish. He’s been cooking up the smaller rockfish whole, serving the plate-size fish to his customers for $4.95. The Omega-3-rich black cod is another favorite, marinated for several days in miso, mirin, and saki, then cooked with a minimum of oil.

Tognazzini says he operates on a slimmer profit margin so he can keep his fish moderately priced. Because he demands fish that has been properly handled at sea, he says he pays fishermen more than the going rate, but it’s worth it for the increased shelf life.

For years, the long-time fisherman has enjoyed letting his customers know the name of the captain who caught their fish and the name of the boat, whether people are dining in the restaurant or taking their purchase home. The feeling of connection to local families is important, he believes. Tognazzini’s innovative idea provided the basis for a statewide fish marketing campaign, Faces of California Fishing.

Down the coast from Morro Bay, Port San Luis is a local fishing port a little closer to San Luis Obispo and the South County. Seafood fans can take a waterfront stroll down the historic Harford Pier near Avila Beach to find locally caught fish for sale. Local distributor Central Coast Seafood is another reliable source for SLO County fish, supplied to local restaurants and retailers.

There’s even a business plan designed to help keep the local fishing industry going strong. “It’s a very turned-on industry,” says Henry Pontarelli of Lisa Wise Consulting in San Luis Obispo, the plan’s author and a former president of Morro Coast Audubon Society.

He notes, “We can feel good about eating local fish, supporting local fishermen, and actively participating in marine conservation by supporting this well-regulated industry.”

For more information about Dockside Too, visit bonniemarietta.com or call 772-8100.