Seafood in Monterey Bay supplied the foundation upon which the region’s historical significance was built. According to Tim Thomas, a well-known historian in Monterey Bay, salmon runs were so large they pushed sardines up against the shore and waves, full of sardines, dumped fish onto the beach.
Thomas said being a historian is “something [he] just always did.” For the last four generations, his family has lived in the Monterey area. He grew up seeing the last remnants of the famous Cannery Row and observed changes to the local fishery over time. “Monterey’s history has always revolved around its maritime culture,” Thomas said.
The native people of Monterey – the Rumsen, Mutsun and Awaswas – made their lives from the abundance of seafood provided by nature. The Spanish, who colonized California and established the city of Monterey in 1788, regularly ate fish at the Carmel and San Carlos missions. After California was annexed by the United States, the Monterey fishery was run by migrants from Japan, China, Italy, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands. Japanese fishermen prospered from the massive salmon runs and in the 1850s, Chinese fishermen enjoyed the freedom of an unregulated abalone fishery.
In the early 1900s, the American people and government began to realize the economic value in the abundance of marine life in Monterey Bay. American enterprises popped up around the bay and government regulations protected what was becoming a world-famous fishing industry for American businesses.
By the end of the 1900s, the fisheries of Monterey Bay had gone through a period of peak economic production and then, predictably, collapsed. According to Thomas, Francis Clark, a marine biologist working for California Department of Fish and Game, studied how the sardine fishery was operated and managed. Her work in ecology predicted the fishery would collapse and she sounded alarm bells, but government decision makers and businessmen running the canneries, who were often the same people, refused to slow their operations.
Warming water temperatures, natural oscillations in sardine population and overfishing led to the final collapse of the commercial sardine fishery and eventually the salmon fishery, as well as the abalone.
“Today, fisheries management in the United States do a much better job protecting our marine resources,” said Thomas. “I don’t believe the fisheries here [Monterey Bay] are at risk, but we will probably never see the historic numbers of the past.” In 2014, the Marine Stewardship Council certified the entire West Coast as “sustainable and well managed,” however, the role of seafood changed and became more of a luxury food item.
In the past, seafood was not traditionally a luxury item, but a primary source of protein and a means of survival. Ernest Doelter, also known as “Pop” and “the king of abalone,” popularized abalone in his bohemian-style restaurant. What started out as an affordable tourist attraction became a commodity for the upper-class because of over-exploitation of the resource.
Abalone is not the only seafood item that has become unaffordable for many Americans. Prices in shrimp, tuna, salmon and oysters have also seen climbs in price. Seafood Source, a website that specializes in seafood economy, estimates that by 2050 seafood prices will climb by an additional 70 percent.
As a result of increasing economic and regulatory barriers, seafood may become available only to privileged groups within society. In a place that has its history and identity rooted in a community built around a wild fishery, there should be a much higher priority placed upon making seafood, a local public resource, available to everyone in the community.
It is important to remember that fish are public goods, as is the health of the marine ecosystem, and they should not be exploited for the benefit of the few.
The abundance of nature provided for people from all walks of life and backgrounds indiscriminately. The native people of Monterey and the western people who colonized their land had one thing in common, they both enjoyed and benefited from seafood. In the spirit of Francis Clark and the history of the people who made their lives on a naturally provided resource, let’s take a look into how our fisheries are managed today and who is benefiting.