Mick Kronman may not be the Old Man and the Sea, but he’s getting close. For the past umpteen years, Kronman has worked for Santa Barbara’s Waterfront Department, where he keeps in constant contact with those who stubbornly keep alive Santa Barbara’s tradition as a working harbor. Before that, Kronman worked as a reporter, covering both county politics and the fishing industry. As someone who’d spent years yanking fish out of South Coast waters, it was a subject he knew more than a little about.
Putting all those skills to use, Kronman just released the most definitive, comprehensive, encompassing history of Santa Barbara’s ever-evolving fishing industry, From Hooks to Harpoons. For him, the book was a long-gestating labor of love. Salty, expansive, and decidedly not politically correct, Kronman spent time responding to questions about what he found out along the way.
You dedicate this book to your father. What’s the story there? My dad took me sport fishing more times than I can remember. And we ate everything we caught — even the disgusting stuff. Plus, he had a flare for ethnic preparations. A former rabbi, he loved to cook fish with the skin on, quite tasty for sure, but a pain in the ass because my brother and I had to scale all the fish before he cooked them. And he cooked all fish whole in an inch-thick oil reservoir. My lord, the stink in the kitchen. To this day, my 96-year-old mother hasn’t forgiven him. And all the while, we got the lecture about eating what we caught, learning where seafood comes from — not from the market, but from the sea, caught by real fishermen. That’s the part that stuck.
How did a college-educated, Maoist dude such as yourself become a fisherman? It goes back to childhood. I loved fishing because, well, it’s fishing. But also, it was the only venue in which I could compete fairly with my father (always a pleasure to whip Dad at something) and my older brother, who wound up dean of the Yale Law School (who can compete with that?). So, after college, the fire burned in me to get to sea as soon as I could. If anybody wants to know what that felt like, read the first two pages of Moby-Dick. (Actually, read the whole thing.) That magnetism pulled me to sea. From sport fishing to boat deckhand to dive-boat skipper to sport-boat skipper to commercial fisherman — all that covered about a decade. Commercially, I specialized in hook-and-line rock cod, jigging for albacore, and harpooning swordfish. There is nothing — well almost nothing — more exciting than harpooning a swordfish.
What was the coolest thing about being a fisherman? Adventure, independence, mystery, danger, and wrestling with nature to make a living. I felt like part of a special breed, like mountain men of the 1800s. Plus, there was free bread and soda at the Enterprise Fish Company when I delivered fish to them, and I got to hang out at the bar in my foul-weather gear. The managers seemed to like the “real fisherman” attraction. Great fun.
What was the worst? Loneliness. When I started fishing, I was always excited to leave port. By the time I quit, a tsunami of existential despair washed over me each time I headed to sea. Then there was weather, breakdowns, poor catches, and trying to keep a vintage 1946 wooden boat floating. But mostly, I just got lonely. I missed seeing pretty girls on State Street. And lo, when I returned to land for good, I married one. Best move of my life.
What was the most challenging aspect of the research you did for your book? First, deciding how to organize it. When I had an epiphany in the shower, where I’m most creative, and decided to divide it into chapters, each covering a gear type, panic dissipated and the horizon cleared. Then it was finding the people to interview and the archived material to review. It took a lot of time and a lot of digging. Spending 18 years at National Fisherman magazine gave me a good shot out of the blocks — not to mention a trove of photos I had at my disposal.
Of all the technological advances you researched, which ones had the most lasting impact on the fishing industry? Probably the development of hydraulic net-hauling equipment, which made it easier to haul all kinds of nets — long, short, deep, shallow — employed to this day in all kinds of fisheries around the globe. In terms of “impact,” however, it also invited the most heated controversies fishermen ever encountered, issues like bycatch, overfishing, habitat destruction. Unfortunately, fishermen still fight the “bogeyman” perception of nets, like they’re some indiscriminate death weapon. If you think about it, they’re just a tool, like a hammer. Properly used, they’re effective and efficient. Improperly used, they can do damage. Believe me, regulators make sure they’re properly used.
For someone moving to Santa Barbara now, it would be easy not to recognize the presence of the fishing industry in town. In the old days, you could fire up the engine and go fish whatever you wanted, pretty much whenever you wanted. Today, fishermen are hemmed by regulations, closures, and a well-heeled environmental lobby that has restricted opportunity and raised the cost of fishing to levels only sustainable by the best of the very best. That’s why the fleet has shrunk from its glory days. That said, Santa Barbara maintains a resilient fleet of 60-80 boats whose owners figured out how to navigate the regulatory landscape and competitive markets, using savvy born of the sheer amount of time they’ve spent at sea, plus an unearthly determination to succeed. In the contemporary sense, they’re the heroes of this book.
What’s the biggest misconception the public has about the fishing industry? That fishermen aren’t environmentalists. First, they have a vested interest in sustainable fishing. I mean, who pees their mess kit? They need the fish to be around so they can continue making a living — simple as that. Second, all the fishermen I’ve ever known love the sea and everything about it. That’s why they became fishermen in the first place. I’ve never known a fisherman who killed without purpose. It breaks my heart to hear them described in any terms other than honorable people doing honorable work.
What’s the biggest misconception the fishing industry has about the public? In recent decades, many fishermen felt misunderstood. They thought the public didn’t like them due to various misconceptions and misinformation. But that’s changing now. Fishermen have learned to reach out to the public and scientists alike. Together, they’re forging new alliances, crafting new narratives, and opening new markets. Fresh, Local, Sustainable has become the mantra of today’s fishermen. They’ve learned to brand their product, and it’s working — just look at how the value of our fisheries has grown steadily over the past several years.
Your book talks about how new technologies create new seafood markets. Can you provide a few examples that struck you? The list is endless. The evolution of drift gillnets greatly expanded markets for Pacific swordfish. Wire crab traps far outfished wooden lath traps. But most important of all is probably the evolution of modern electronics that can help fishermen gauge the weather, locate fish, and return to the spot where they found the fish whenever they like. In fact, you can sit in your living room with a cold beer and a smartphone, using Google Earth to scan the seafloor for likely hotspots. In the old days, you had to drag a weight over the bottom until it got stuck. Then you knew where a reef was. And good luck finding it again. That’s why a primary theme of the book is evolution — of gear, technology, and markets for sure, but also the evolution of the mind, how fishermen figured out how to catch more and with less effort.
Aside from being done, what was the coolest thing for you about writing this book? I’ve worked professionally on or near the Santa Barbara Channel for 42 years, much of it spent fishing or connected to fishing. I had to get it off my chest. It was a bucket-list thing.
Mick Kronman will read from his book, From Hooks to Harpoons, on Tuesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State Street.