Santa Barbara’s commercial fishing industry has been hit very hard this summer with the price of diesel fuel rising from $3 to $4.50 a gallon in just in the last year. The supposedly low supply of fuel in a country with a very high demand has attributed the most to the high prices, but the fishermen in Santa Barbara’s harbor are dealing with a seafood market that does not change with inflation as quickly.
If the season is good, the price of seafood per pound will drop due to the increase of supply, causing fishermen to fish more to eliminate the large overhead of fuel and boat maintenance. The cost for filling up a fishing boat is now nearly $500, however, and a trip to the Channel Islands and back will burn around 100 gallons. Rock crab fishermen Ron, who declined to give his last name, started slowing down his boat in order to save fuel. “I normally burn like 10 gallons an hour, but I started slowing down to about eight and a half to nine,” Ron explained.
Scott Howell, a local urchin fisherman, has been feeling the hurt. He explained that urchins are seeing less and less of a monetary return. Howell has been diving for urchins in the area and along the coast of California for the past 25 years. Since the large urchin market in Japan was taken by Russia, the global demand for urchins has gone down. Howell yields a meager return of 40 to 80 cents per pound of urchin. The high cost of fuel has created a large problem for him as it is becoming more and more important to return to the harbor with something.
Scott Street runs the gas pump at the end of the main unloading dock where boats bring in their daily catch. He also has a hand in the buying and selling of the urchins and sea cucumbers brought into the harbor. Street reminisced of the days when divers could stay out at the islands and surf if there were less than desirable urchin to bring in. “You have got to come in with something these days,” Street warned. The price of fuel, which has so far seen a high of $5.16 per gallon, coupled with the dwindling demands for urchin, is hurting the market, he explained. And the large swells that have recently hit Santa Barbara surf spots may have been a surfer’s dream, but the effects on the fishing industry in the channel were awful. The meager returns seen this year in fishing should get better. Street has hopes that this will be a good winter, “If the weather stays nice, they should see a better return as well as fuel prices dropping a little,” he said.
In order to stay afloat during these times, many fishermen are purchasing a variety of fish licenses to fish as much as they can. Bob Laumer and his partner on the boat The Sea Brothers, recently began harpooning sword fish, aside from diving for cucumber, urchin and fishing sea bass. Just leaving the harbor these days costs them $1,000. “We just have to fish as hard as we can until the weather gets stops us.” Laumer explained.
While the brunt of the economic woes has seemed to hit the fishermen hard, the rest of the industry is feeling it as well. Brian Colgate, who owns the Santa Barbara Fish Market, which is located at the harbor, explained that the weakening American dollar is really hurting the local industries because they are competing with countries like Mexico who provide government subsidies for their fishermen’s fuel. They can therefore sell to the United States more cheaply than can those fishing in local waters. Colgate tries to give the fishermen the best deals he can, but unfortunately the fish prices are based on what the market is doing, which fluctuates often. The variety of options such as frozen sea food, also create less enticement for many people to purchase fresh sea food locally.
Not only does the Santa Barbara Fish Market sell fish fresh off the boat at the harbor, they also transport to local restaurants, and wholesalers in Ventura and Los Angeles, which is where they really feel the pinch of fuel prices. Colgate said that many fish sellers are handing the price of the pump to the customer with a surcharge. Fish Market has yet to do so.
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Eric Weldon is an Independent intern.