Kimberly Selkoe, cofounder of the Santa Barbara Sustainable Seafood Program and Community Seafood and now founding director of FishSB, used to hate the very thought of eating a fish.
But she loved the sea. At the age of 13, she paid her own way through scuba training, which took place in a pond in the dead of a Bostonian winter, and studied biology in college. Selkoe’s dream was to become a scientific diver at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, but her dream died quickly when she was told they didn’t hire women.
Instead, she joined a lab studying lobster behavior and then attended the University of California, Santa Barbara to pursue a PhD in marine biology. She was intrigued by the idea that populations of marine creatures could mix across vast spans of ocean and wanted to see if this was happening with the kelp bass population in Baja California. Scientists suspected that Baja kelp bass were largely immigrants, riding in from Mexico as larva during El Niño years when the California current flows north instead of south.
To find out the truth, Selkoe had to spend considerable time hitching fishing trips with Baja fishermen, collecting fish DNA — and eating fish. “If I didn’t eat the seafood, they wouldn’t trust me,” says Selkoe. She learned two things from her research. First, Baja fishermen need to protect their local kelp bass populations because local populations — not current-surfing larva from Mexico — stock future generations. And second, fresh fish is delicious.
As Selkoe was wrapping up her dissertation, she took a trip to visit family in Charleston, South Carolina. One day, she noticed stickers on a restaurant that said, “We’re part of the sustainable seafood initiative.” The idea of creating a sustainable seafood program in Santa Barbara leapt into her mind and stuck. But when she shared the idea with her lab, it fell on deaf ears. “No one cared about fisheries then,” Selkoe explains.
Mentally fried after earning her PhD, Selkoe decided to take a shot at bringing sustainable seafood to Santa Barbara’s eateries. By this time, she had gained a collaborator — Amanda Hendrickson, another UCSB student — and a sponsor, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Sea Center. The Santa Barbara Sustainable Seafood Program began with Selkoe and Hendrickson knocking from restaurant door to restaurant door, trying to sign chefs up for sustainability.
It proved to be a challenge. For one thing, there was little interest or awareness about sustainable seafood. But there was another problem. “We had a couple of restaurants signed up, but had a hard time advising them,” says Selkoe. In those early days, she relied heavily on Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which uses a stoplight rating system for fisheries, to inform her clients. Fisheries rated green are definitely sustainable, fisheries rated red are definitely not, and everything else falls in a murky yellow category that, 10 years ago, was often code for “we have no idea.” There were far too many fisheries in the yellow category and too few in the green for Selkoe to help restaurateurs make sustainable decisions in all their seafood selections.
According to Selkoe, the country woke up to seafood sustainability after An Inconvenient Truth hit national theaters in 2006. Chefs started telling Selkoe, “So happy you’re here,” fisheries started generating information on sustainability, and distributors started keeping better track of where seafood came from and how it was caught. Santa Barbara’s fishing community also embraced sustainability early on and remains one of the most highly managed and innovative fishing communities in the world.
While Santa Barbara’s fine-dining establishments often tout their local seafood, few Santa Barbarans eat local seafood at home. “You could easily feed the world population on farmed mussels, but there’s no interest,” says Selkoe. As the first director of FishSB, a joint initiative of the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara that was launched earlier this month, Selkoe will be working to rustle up more interest in local seafood. She will also be working to dispel much of the misinformation surrounding seafood, such as unfounded fears about the impacts of the Refugio Oil Spill, which never reached far enough offshore to affect commercial fisheries, and domoic acid levels in crabs, which have yet to be linked to any reported illness in humans.
Selkoe hopes that her efforts will help consumers overcome their hesitation about seafood — just as she overcame hers — and get hooked on the gustatory hallelujah of a fresh fish.