Morro Bay fishing is back from the depths

Tribune photo by Jayson Mellom

Dock workers at Morro Bay Fish Co. are busy unloading hundreds of black cod from the hold of the fishing vessel Black Mariah. Skipper Mark Hamerdinger caught the load about 45 miles offshore in 3,000 feet of water.

Most of the large, sleek fish will wind up as sashimi or other seafood delicacies in sushi bars in Japan where, unlike America, there is an insatiable demand for the savory fish. Fishermen say this bountiful black cod catch is helping to fuel a steady resurgence of an industry that has seen hard times in recent years.

After bottoming out in the mid-2000s, commercial fish landings have grown by about 30 percent per year for the past three years, said Jeremiah O’Brien, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Organization.

According to the Morro Bay and Port San Luis Commercial Fishing Business Plan, local landings peaked in 1985 at 15 million pounds. In 2006, landings had shrunk to 1.2 million.

By 2009, Morro Bay fishermen were catching 3.5 million pounds, according to statistics kept by the state Department of Fish and Game.

Last year, fishermen landed nearly 1.5 million pounds of black cod, making it 40 percent of the local catch.

“We are definitely improving and are a significant contributor to the coffers of Morro Bay,” O’Brien said, referring to the spending that fishermen do in Morro Bay.

Industry rebounds

While the industry is not nearly what it was during its heyday, it is a myth that commercial fishing is dead in Morro Bay, O’Brien said. His fishermen’s group has nearly 100 members.

After decades of being a highly productive port, fishing in Morro Bay nearly collapsed in 2005 when federal regulators placed 3.8 million acres of ocean floor near the Central Coast off-limits to trawling.

Trawlers drag large nets across the seafloor. It is a productive way of fishing and was the mainstay of Morro Bay commercial fishing, but is out of favor now because of the environmental damage it can cause. In 2006, The Nature Conservancy bought out Morro Bay’s entire trawl fleet.

Fishermen say the current rebound is due to their efforts to shift away from trawling by using hook and line and traps, along with loosening of catch limits and other restrictions.

Although fishing can be highly unpredictable from one year to the next, fishermen are feeling optimistic for the first time in years.

“For the short term at least, our prospects are looking very good,” O’Brien said.

However, it is unlikely that fishermen will ever see the number of landings that they did in the 1980s. Trawlers accounted for much of the poundage. With those gone, fishermen are concentrating on smaller, higher-value catches.

Choice of Asian diners

Commercial fishing suffered another small setback earlier this year with the death of Ed “Fast Eddie” Ewing. He was the skipper of the South Bay, a trawler he operated for The Nature Conservancy. At the time of his death, Ewing was suffering from multiple health issues.

Ewing was experimenting with ways to use trawling more sustainably. He was a good source of rockfish and flatfish, types of seafood popular with local consumers, said Mark Tognazzini, a Morro Bay fisherman and owner of Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant and an associated fish market.

Like many fishermen, Tognazzini will try his luck with a limited salmon season that began Thursday. Still, black cod is the mainstay.

“We are kind of a one-fishery town right now,” he said.

Although fishermen are happy to have a robust black cod catch, it is ironic that little of it is consumed domestically. Officially called sablefish, black cod has a soft buttery texture that appeals more to Asian palates than American ones.

“Americans want firmer, flakier fish,” Tognazzini said. “Black cod will never be mainstream in America, at least not in my lifetime.”

Consequently, black cod is found only in markets, such as Tognazzini’s, that specialize in locally caught fish or in specialty seafood restaurants.