Triplicate Staff

New law streamlines permit for direct sales to consumers

Last week Gov. Jerry Brown signed the so-called "Pacific to Plate" bill making it easier for commercial fishermen to sell their catch directly to consumers by streamlining permits and other requirements to create local fishermen's markets.Sponsored by Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), AB 226 "allows fishermen's markets to operate as food facilities, vendors to clean their fish for direct sale, and multiple fishermen to organize a market under a single permit," according to a press release from California Sea Grant, a partnership between federal fisheries managers, the state of California and state universities, that spearheaded the "Pacific to Plate" bill.

Previously, fishermen could sell their catch directly off their boat or at local farmer's markets, but there were often heavy restrictions on selling at farmer's markets, like selling the fish whole, when many customers would rather have a small fillet. By creating a new category of non-permanent food facilities - a fishermen's market - the bill should smooth the direct sale of fish.

With the ink still drying on the governor's signature, it may be too

early to tell what effect the new law will have on the North Coast, but

Crescent CIty Farmer's Market Manager Ron Phillips said he thinks it

will be a positive thing for commercial fishermen selling at market.

Again, it's still early to say, he said.

"There's a demand for fish at the farmer's market so i hope it works

out great and someone takes advantage of it. They have six months to

figure it out," Phillips said, with Oct. 31 being the last market day of

the season.

Fishermen will now be able to sell fillets whereas before they were required to sell whole fish, Phillips said.

Wearing his other hat as a Crescent City Harbor Commissioner,

Phillips said his quick reading of the bill did not clearly outline the

path for a fishermen's market to open in Crescent City Harbor but that

will depend on what new requirements the Del Norte County environmental

health department creates to comply with the law.

As the local health agency, the Del Norte environmental health

department, is responsible for enforcing the California Retail Food

Code, which in addition to farmer's markets, will now include

fishermen's markets.

Brian McNally, director of the environmental health department, said

he read earlier versions of the bill but not the final version becoming

law last week and could not speak to what changes it might bring to the

county. McNally said he imagined a fishermen's market from the bill

would be established at the harbor and not at the currently established

farmer's markets.

A significant hurdle commercial fishermen face when trying to sell

direct to consumers is the way that the West Coast's large seafood

buyers, most notably Pacific Seafood, treat fishermen: all or nothing.

"These fishermen coming in locally don't have a lot of leeway in selling their fish," Phillips said.

Knowledge of the 'all or nothing' practice was acknowledged by both

Phillips and Joe Tyburczy, the California Sea Grant scientist for the

North Coast region, as something done by Pacific Seafood and other large

buyers. The large buyers are known to not buy seafood from fishermen

that sell any of their catch to other sources, such as at a farmer's

market. And with a near-monopoly on the West Coast seafood trade,

fishermen can't afford to be cut off from the large buyers.

Although alternative marketing arrangements like selling to a

fishermen's market might fetch a higher price per pound, the demand from

direct consumers is not likely to be enough to buy all of the

fishermen's catch, making a good relationship with large buyers

necessary for survival.

"That is a big concern. That's the other big political economic

question: 'how viable will this thing be up in our area because if

Pacific and other processors behave in that way, that is strong

deterrent to any type of alternative marketing situation," said

Tyburczy, adding the issue frequently comes up in talks with local

fishermen. "It's definitely a concern to be addressed."

But when not talking about seafood buyers using market clout to

muscle fishermen, Tyburczy said that there has also been a lot of

interest in the Eureka area of transferring the interest in the local

food movement to a higher demand for direct fish sales.

"There's not a more consistent availability even though there are things being caught year-round," Tyburczy said.

The Pacific to Plate initiative started in San Diego when fishermen's

direct-sales plight caught the attention of California Sea Grant

scientist Theresa Talley, who had fond memories of buying oysters and

clams on the East Coast.

"One hold up in the launching of a fishermen's market stemmed from a

general lack of confidence in whether a it could succeed," Talley said

in the Sea Grant press release. "So we decided to look at: What's the

supply? What's the demand?"

During the fall and winter of 2013, Talley and a colleague conducted a

study to put a number on this demand. The study showed a high demand

in local seafood and became a great tool for San Diego fishermen to

advocate for looser fishermen's market regulations.

The buzz generated by the study and talk of a local fishermen's

market encouraged local government officials to issue a temporary permit

for a fishermen's market. More than 1,300 people showed up for the Tuna

Harbor Dockside Market opening in August 2014.

"In its first months, the market averaged an impressive 350 customers

and 1.1 tons of seafood sold each week, generating about $15,000 in

direct sales," the press release states.

As the San Diego County Board of Supervisors sought long-term

permitting options for the market, the Pacific to Plate bill was born,

and now other coastal communities in California will have the

opportunity to repeat the market in San Diego.

But on the much less populous North Coast, it's unclear how the new bill will play out.

"If there was continuous availability, that might bring in more

people but is there a enough demand to make it worth the fishermen's

time?" Tyburczy said.

Atkins, the bill's author thinks that the popularity of farmer's markets in recent years will transfer to fish.

"As we've seen by the massive growth of farmers markets across the

state, allowing direct sales of produce benefits farmers and consumers,"

said Speaker Atkins in a press release. "These small-business owners

and coastal communities throughout California deserve these same

opportunities. Pacific to Plate does this by removing unnecessary

hurdles in state law."

Even after the bill is digested by local health agencies and

interested fishermen also sink their teeth in, the issue with seafood

processors will remain.

"It will be interesting to see how many folks are interested and dive

in, but there is this hurdle of navigating the issues with the

processors," Tyburczy said.

Any commercial fishermen or other stakeholders interested in more

information or providing input related to the Pacific to Plate bill are

invited to call California Sea Grant scientist Joe Tyburczy at

707-443-8369.

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