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What Even Is Local LA Seafood?

A lobster on a plate.
(Toa Heftiba/Unsplash)
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Chef Michael Cimarusti was eight years old when he received his first fishing rod from his grandfather. "Fishing's one of those things that once it's in your blood, you can't get rid of it," he says.

Growing up in New Jersey, there was a lake about a quarter of a mile walk from his childhood home. "Everyday after school I'd go and fish for at least an hour or two," he says. And then there were the fishing trips with his father in Maine, where he spent summers catching everything from smallmouth bass to American eels. "Just all sorts of crazy stuff," he says, laughing. Fishing — and preparing his catch — has always been an integral part of Cimarusti's life. That dedication is evident in his work.

Cimarusti, who won the James Beard Foundation's 2019 Best Chef: West award, specializes in fresh, sustainable and local seafood at his restaurants, the elevated Providence and the more casual but equally delicious Connie and Ted's.

Southern California is an ideal place for sourcing excellent seafood, Cimarusti explains. "Some of the best fish in the world are available out here," he says before diving into a list of his favorite finny locals, ranging from kelp bass to vermillion red rock cod.

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The waters off Southern California are rich with marine life. As part of his effort to serve the freshest seafood possible, much of what Cimarusti offers at Providence is sourced from the Pacific. "There are so many amazing ingredients that are being harvested right here," he says.

But for most consumers, it's not that easy. If you don't want fish flown in from halfway around the world, if you want your seafood to be as local as your fruit and veg, you're going to need a definition. What even is L.A. seafood?

(Ernest Marquez Collection/The Huntington Library)

At Our Doorstep

Los Angeles has always been a seafood town. Long before the arrival of the Spanish, the Tongva and Chumash people relied on the waters off modern Los Angeles for sustenance.

"This was an exceptionally rich landscape both on the terrestrial side of things and especially so in the ocean," says Tom Ford, executive director of The Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting the Santa Monica Bay.

People dry abalone in flats at the beach in San Pedro, circa 1910.

The indigenous residents of Southern California sourced a range of marine creatures from the Pacific Ocean — abalone, crabs, seaweed, sea lions and a variety of fish. When the first Europeans arrived in Southern California, they also turned to the ocean for sustenance.

By the late 1800s, Angelenos were escaping the summer heat by heading to one of the many piers that lined Santa Monica Bay. "There used to be a great deal more piers, especially from Santa Monica to Venice," Ford says.

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A group returning from a day's fishing at Pierpont Landing, Long Beach, California. Circa 1955.

Recreational fishing along these piers was so important, both as a source of protein and as recreation, a large portion of the bay was closed to commercial fishing. Much of it remains so today. "Fishing and harvesting was just a part of that usual trip to the beach back then," he says.

By the 1900s, Los Angeles was becoming a bastion of commercial fishing, especially canned tuna. Terminal Island gave rise to two notable tuna brands, Star-Kist and Van Camp Seafood (now known as Chicken of the Sea). During the '40s and '50s, 80% of the 12 million cases of tuna produced in the U.S. each year were canned on Terminal Island. "It was so significant," says Ford, "that a tuna still exists on the Los Angeles County seal."

By the 1980s, faced with higher processing costs and a product that was getting harder to find, tuna canneries throughout Southern California began moving overseas.

Workers at the White Star Cannery stand in front of the company's facility on Terminal Island in the L.A. Harbor area. Circa 1945. You can see the name "Chicken of the Sea" on the wall.

Hard To Define, Harder To Find

Until the 1950s, much of the seafood in Los Angeles was sourced from the waters just offshore. If you didn't catch it yourself, you could buy it from a fisherman or your neighborhood fishmonger. If you wanted to know where the fish came from, you could ask and they'd likely have an easy answer.

These days, although you can still catch fish from Santa Monica Bay, you should be careful as they might be contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs.

The waters off Southern California remain rich with tasty marine life. In 2013, commercial fishermen in the South Coast region, which includes Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, landed more than 117.7 million pounds of seafood. Thanks to canning, at-sea refrigeration (which gave rise to Terminal Island's successful tuna fleets) and globalization, our local seafood market is now part of a global supply chain, making it challenging for the average consumer to source locally.

Hassan Massoud, a street vendor, sells freshly cooked octopus and squid on September 27, 2013 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A whole octopus sells for 8000 Tanzanian Shillings ($5 US).

Roughly 90% of the seafood Americans consume is imported.

"That remaining 10% of seafood is sourced from within U.S. territorial waters but that could be coming from Alaska," says Dr. Demian Willette, an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University's biology department.

If you walk into an L.A. grocery store and ask for seafood that's local, you'll probably get confused looks.

"Local seafood doesn't have a strict definition, and 'local' doesn't necessarily equate with sustainable," Ryan Bigelow, senior program manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, explained via email.

According to Caroline Pomeroy, a California Sea Grant extension specialist, the definition of "local" seafood is comically broad. "I've heard it used to refer to seafood from a catch that's landed at ports within the state," she says.

Nearly 600 pounds of shrimp from Acy Cooper's trawler are cleaned and weighed at a seafood dealer after a long overnight shift of shrimping on August 27, 2019 off the coast of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. The Cooper family are four generations of fishermen and shrimping is their family tradition.

In North Carolina, she explains, any shrimp that land at ports within the state are deemed local. "But in other cases, with local seafood, it can also be local fish caught by fishermen who live in said community. They fish out of the port associated with this community and it ultimately ends up on my plate in the same community," Pomeroy says.

Dave Rudie, owner of California Offshore Products, a San Diego-based wholesale company that specializes in Southern California seafood, says the definition of local varies from company to company. "Some companies look to land farming and say that local is what comes out of your county. Some people think of local purely as geographical distance from where it was caught to where it was unloaded," he says.

Rudie, who started his business by diving for sea urchins off Catalina Island in the 1970s, defines local Southern California seafood as "probably from Ensenada, Mexico to Santa Barbara, California," since marine life distinct to the South Coast are common to the waters of this region.

Using that standard, how easy — or hard — is it to find L.A. seafood here in Los Angeles?

Local Fish, Global Market

Let's start with some notable locals often found in SoCal waters: California spiny lobsters, California market squid and spot prawns.

"Everything about them is perfect," Cimarusti says of the delicate prawns although they're only available in limited amounts throughout the year. Demand for shrimp, both in California and around the rest of the U.S., is high. Americans eat more than 4.4 pounds per person of the colorful crustaceans each year.

Unfortunately, there aren't enough spot prawns to meet the overwhelming consumer demand for them. (Spot prawns are technically shrimp but this kind of mislabeling is common with seafood.) But there is plenty of shrimp available cheaply from other countries. Of the shrimp we consume, 90% is imported, mostly from farms in China and Southeast Asia.

As for other shellfish, lobster is a popular treat here in California and around the country. "When we talk about getting lobsters, inevitably, we are talking about lobsters that come from Maine," says Ford.

Despite having our own local lobster species, the clawless California spiny lobster, consumers in the U.S. tend to prefer the clawed Maine lobster. "Asian markets, particularly China, love the spiny lobster," says Rudie. "They pay very high prices for it."

Chinese demand for California spiny lobsters, as well as the Australian variety, has caused prices to skyrocket.

"We try to sell it locally but it's so much more expensive than the East Coast lobster," Rudie says.

Most SoCal restaurants and consumers choose the cheaper East Coast lobsters while local producers, who can make more money abroad, are happy to ship California lobsters across the globe.

The situation with California squid, one of the smaller species of squid, is similar. 80% of U.S. squid ends up abroad, mostly in China, Southeast Asia and Europe.

"The domestic market wants clean squid," says Diane Pleschner-Steele, the executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association. "But they prefer squid with a larger body. Asian and Mediterrnean markets are used to the smaller squid. That's why they have such a premium overseas."

People buy fried squid at a small shop in Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai, on June 7, 2019, the day of Dragon Boat Festival celebrations.

If you're eating squid in the U.S. you're probably dining on Humboldt squid from Peru or Patagonian squid from Chile or the Falkland Islands while halfway around the world, your counterparts in China and Spain are likely eating squid from California waters.

Because labor costs are higher and environmental regulations are more stringent domestically than abroad, the cost of cleaning and processing local squid is double the cost of importing it, according to Pleschner-Steele. That's true for many other types of seafood and it explains why so much of our local catch ends up going elsewhere.

"A lot of it gets exported," Pomeroy says, "but some of what we consume is actually processed overseas and reimported back into the country." So even our "local" squid is sometimes shipped thousands of miles across the Pacific before it hits our plates.

Needlefish on ice in the supermarket.

Knowing Where To Look

Wild caught fish is an inconsistent product. Populations fluctuate and sometimes move vast distances.

"We are not a nation of seafood consumers," says Pomeroy. In most of the country, you're much more likely to see poultry or beef on dinner tables.

In coastal areas, consumers have a broader appreciation for seafood, which means Los Angeles offers a solid market for sablefish, lingcod and sea cucumbers, unlike other parts of the country.

Local seafood is available but you have to know where to find it — and the best way to do that is to go directly to your local fishermen.

"I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, and I've been commercial diving for about 30 years," says Pierre Charest, who operates Santa Barbara Live Seafood.

Customers line up early on a Saturday morning to get the best local seafood at the Dory Fleet Seafood Market in Newport Beach.

Every Saturday morning he sells his local catches — sea urchin, sea cucumber, wavy turban snails — directly to customers at the Dory Fleet Seafood Market in Newport Beach. Customers line up long before dawn to pick out fresh crab, red snapper, spot prawns, sablefish, sea snails and whatever else turns up.

Established in 1891, the market, which operates as a cooperative, gives consumers a chance to interact with the people who catch the fish, letting them get as "close to the net" as possible. That's a rare experience.

As Paul Greenberg notes in American Catch: The Fight for our Local Seafood, from the 1980s to the early 2000s, fishmongers and specialized fish markets lost much of their control of the U.S. seafood trade. During that period, supermarkets jumped from selling 16% to more than 80% of our seafood.

In the process, one more barrier was placed between consumers and the people who catch their fish. Most employees at supermarket seafood counters don't have personal relationships with their local fishing communities or know about the health of local waters.

Crabs for sale at the Dory Fleet Seafood Market in Newport Beach.

Close To The Net

Charest likes buying local seafood because that way, he knows who's sourcing the fish. He also appreciates how California fisheries are regulated.

"With our management that's in place in California, you know you are buying something that isn't being abused as far as the population goes," Charest says. Seafood providers in other countries don't always have the same level of transparency.

"Asking questions and pushing for sustainability is the most important thing consumers can do to protect our ocean," says Bigelow.

As we know, seafood caught by larger, industrial producers often goes on an extensive journey, more than 5,000 miles on average, before it ends up on your plate.

That's why Kim Selkoe founded Santa Barbara's Get Hooked, a community-supported fishery program that sources local seafood and delivers it directly to customers each week. She says buying truly local seafood let consumers avoid large commercial producers, which often have hefty carbon footprints.

"The consolidation and corporatization of food has led to problems, and people are trying to get away from that," she says. Getting closer to the net helps ensure that your food isn't traveling vast distances and that you're eating more sustainable species.

As we stare down the barrel of climate change, that's going to be more important than ever.

"Tuning in to what's going on locally and domestically with appreciation to the larger global system," Pomeroy says, "that's an important part of adapting to the critical climate changes that are coming and already occurring."

A man stands at a dock looking across the water at a row of fishing and tuna boats docked in Fish Harbor at Terminal Island in front of the Van Camp Seafood Company and the French Sardine Company. Circa 1938.
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