Public-private partnership nets seafood and “blue” jobs

Sacramento Bee, 4/6/09.

The three things California needs to get our economy moving again are jobs, jobs and jobs. This being California – the national leader in protecting the environment – we want as many of these jobs as possible to be green. Now let’s add a color to the spectrum of economic revival – blue, as in California’s Pacific Ocean.

A public-private partnership known as the California Fisheries Fund launched at Google’s Mountain View headquarters last week to invest in the state’s blue economy. An alliance of environmentalists and state government, the fund is using market mechanisms to bring blue – and green – jobs to our fishing industry.

Starting with a modest pool of $5 million – contributed by California’s Ocean Protection Council and the Environmental Defense Fund – the California Fisheries Fund provides seed money for great entrepreneurial ideas that will create higher-paying and safer year-round jobs for fishermen, breathe new life into coastal fishing communities, protect valuable ocean habitat and wildlife through environmentally sound fishing techniques, and deliver sustainably caught fresh fish to our tables every month.

This is a great story at a most welcome time. The market problem the fund addresses is the collapse of California’s fishing industry and of fishing towns along the coast. Between 1981 and 2005, while Californians’ appetite for seafood increased, commercial fishing in California declined from more than 900 million pounds to less than 300 million pounds.

In the same period, California’s commercial fishing fleet shrank from about 6,700 boats to 2,700. Anyone visiting our beautiful coast can see the sad result as this decline ripples through related businesses. Now, thanks to a growing appetite for environmentally healthy seafood and to the spirit of some Californians who just wouldn’t quit, what’s rippling through the blue economy supply chain is good news.

We can start at dockside in Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County, where a veteran fisherman named Brett Cunningham wondered why there wasn’t a fish distributor right there on the dock buying the wide variety of appealing seafood caught in Morro Bay. He decided to appoint himself the local seafood buyer, and three years ago founded the Morro Bay Fish Co., aiming to establish Morro Bay as a premium brand.

Moving one click up the blue economy supply chain brings us to Giovanni Comin, owner of Central Coast Seafood in nearby Atascadero, which buys Morro Bay seafood from Cunningham’s company. Not long ago, Comin realized there was a great potential business model marketing local seafood featured as “good for you and the ocean” on the Environmental Defense Fund’s popular, downloadable Seafood Selector ( www.edf.org/seafood).

Eco-friendly seafood is not a niche, boutique business. Such market leaders as Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Red Lobster and Whole Foods are committed to buying environmentally friendly seafood. So are many local supermarkets and numerous food service companies, including Bon Appétit Management Co. of Palo Alto. And Google’s purchasing manager insists on buying from local, eco-friendly Central Coast Seafood for Google’s famous employee cafeterias.

Cunningham, who wants to buy more fish in Morro Bay, and Comin, who wants to ramp up the marketing of local seafood, had great ideas to grow the blue economy, but moving from innovative ideas to marketplace execution is costly.

Especially these days, where’s the money to come from?

Enter the California Fisheries Fund. Using the fund’s first grants, Cunningham’s Morro Bay Fish Co. will improve dockside infrastructure to handle all seasons’ Morro Bay fresh catch by fishermen using sustainable methods. Comin’s Central Coast Seafood will expand marketing and train staffers in educating restaurants and retailers about fresh sustainable seafood.

The California Fisheries Fund is a great example of how businesses, environmental groups and the state can partner to meet multiple goals, including rebuilding coastal economies, saving the environment, making Californians healthier by putting fresh Pacific seafood on their tables and – most important of all – creating blue and green jobs.