By David Karp
Special to the Los Angeles Times
12:56 PM CST, November 11, 2011
reporting from ventura
— Southern California lies along an ocean that once abounded in seafood and still produces a catch of considerable quantity and diversity. Why is it, then, that so little of the fish at farmers markets is sold directly by those who catch it?
Ideally, farmers market customers and managers would like a vendor to offer wild fish that is freshly caught, rather than frozen; is caught in local waters; is sold directly by the fisherman, his family or his employees; is available regularly and reliably in a diverse range of products; and is a reasonable price.
Realistically, however, it is virtually impossible for one vendor to fulfill all of these criteria, any more than one person can be both a top-flight ballerina and a football linebacker. Local fisheries are depleted, permits are limited and the catch is unreliable. It is difficult for a vendor to attract customers consistently unless they offer a range of items, but on one fishing trip, boats generally catch just one or a few types of seafood — such as squid, tuna or lobsters — depending on the season, what they have permits for and what they target. Furthermore, fishing is exhausting, and fishermen are a breed apart; most depend on volume sales and don't have the time or inclination to bother with farmers markets.
Many farmers markets do have fish vendors, but almost all of those are resellers who readily tell customers that they bought their fish wholesale. If a certified produce vendor at a farmers market were doing that, they'd be violating the direct-marketing regulations that govern farmers markets, but reselling is allowed for fish vendors as long as they have the required food handling permits. The theory behind this is, although a farmer's certificate lists the land they own or lease and its anticipated harvest, wild seafood falls into a different category, for uncertified foods, because no one owns or leases the sea, or can be assured of catching a certain quantity.
Even the prestigious and prosperous Santa Monica farmers market has not been able to attract a local fisherman with fresh wild fish. Looking back at the fish vendors who have sold at the Santa Monica farmers market since she started managing it in 1982, Laura Avery says she can think of only one, a shrimper who no longer operates, who she was sure sold only what he caught.
In May of this year, she ejected a longtime vendor who claimed that she sold her family's catch, while buying regularly from wholesalers; in truth, this vendor was in a difficult position, caught between Santa Monica market rules (stricter than state rules) mandating direct sales and customers demanding diverse offerings and reliable supplies. But this vendor misidentified imported Vietnamese basa as local sole to customers, and the one indispensable criterion for fish vendors is that they be transparent about what kind of fish they offer, who caught it and where it came from.
In order to fill the gap left by this vendor's departure, Avery brought in Janae's Fillets, which sells its own catch of high-quality but mostly frozen wild Alaskan salmon.
Avery had almost given up on the possibility of finding a local fisherman for her market, but then two months ago she ran into Jay Dupuy and his daughter Danielle of the Ventura Fish Co. selling at the Good Food Festival and Conference in Santa Monica. Avery was intrigued, and last Monday she drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to visit the Dupuys at the Ventura harbor.
Five times a year, thousands of customers line up for hours at a pier at the Ventura harbor, waiting to buy fresh ahi tuna and other fish right off the Dupuys' 100-foot boat, the Ventura II. The boat catches aji on long lines — 30 to 40 miles long — from November to April, 500 to 1,200 miles from shore, and can hold 40 to 50 tons of fish, chilled to just above freezing.
Why would a commercial fisherman devote time to farmers markets? Jay Dupuy said that age 51 he was tired of the long journeys and cramped quarters of fishing trips ("you don't have a life of your own") and was casting about for alternate sales channels that could keep him occupied on the "beach," as he calls shore work.
But it wouldn't be practical to sell fresh fish at farmers markets just occasionally. In order to market the family's fish year-round, Jay's daughter, 26-year-old Danielle, rented space in a nearby commercial kitchen and started preparing ahi and skipjack pâtés, according to a recipe from her grandfather, Pete. The Dupuys began selling five months ago at the Studio City farmers market and last Wednesday at the Santa Monica market, next to Janae's Fillets.
At their meeting with Avery in Ventura, the Dupuys proposed marketing fresh fish from other Ventura harbor boats at the Santa Monica market while maintaining a direct connection between each fisherman and his catch, and identifying where it came from. That might seem like just another form of reselling. But it would be transparent, it would give fishermen a better price than they would get from wholesalers, and customers would get fresher fish, locally and sustainably caught, as directly sourced as possible, said Avery.
Compromises — selling processed products, just one type of fish, fish that is frozen or not exactly local, or some kind of reselling — seem inevitable if fish is to be sold at Southern California farmers markets.