Fair Fish on San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf

San Francisco Community Fishing Association leads the West Coast in fair and sustainable fishing

The sustainable food movement has a new rising star: seafood. And although seafood may be a little late to the environmentally conscious table, it is now making its mark across the US West Coast, led in large part by the San Francisco Community Fishing Association.

photo of crabs in a fish marketphoto by Zoe Loftus-Farren

Established in 2010, the SFCFA was the first community fishing association incorporated on the West Coast. It now includes 20 members, all small-boat captains operating out of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and fishing for crab, salmon, halibut, herring, and cod.

So what exactly is a community fishing association?

“When you have a Community Fishing Association, it is really looking at a co-op model,” explains Stephanie Webb, business development manager for the Community Fisheries Network, a nationwide network of community fishing groups. “It is bringing in different fishermen who are essentially creating their own price for their product, selling it to the co-op, and then the co-op sells it to the market. So it breaks up the business-as-usual supply chain.” The co-op is owned and run by members, who generally pay an upfront investment to join and smaller yearly fees as needed.

By pooling their catches and bypassing the lower rungs of the seafood distribution chain, cooperative members are able to generate higher prices.  Additionally, SFCFA members gain unfettered access to essential and expensive infrastructure such as a hoist, an ice machine, forklifts, and freezers.  At the end of each year, members enjoy profit sharing.

These combined benefits allow small boat fishermen to compete in a market that has become increasingly privatized and dominated by large boats and big buyers.  

“It is empowering for the fishermen to know what the company is getter per pound for their product [and to help] decide what to spend on the overhead,” says Larry Collins, president of SFCFA. “They have input from the hook to the back door.”

Russ Deman II, a SFCFA fisherman and board member, agrees: “It is all owned by the fisherman, which is really nice. It sure seems like it’s been working really well for local guys just to have our own little thing and not be under the jaws of the old-school fish buyers.”

In an era of chronic overfishing, the SFCFA has also emerged as a strong advocate for sustainable fisheries management. Last year, the co-op successfully lobbied for crab-trap limits in California, and it has pushed to preserve fresh-water resources for spawning salmon. Members also secured permits for three SFCFA boats to participate in a demonstration project for hook-and-line fishing of rock cod, a low-impact fishing method that reduces by-catch.

“I like to say that fisherman were the first environmentalists,” Collins says. “We understand about fisheries management. We don’t want to take the last of anything. We want the next generation to be able to come in and take this over and be able to keep catching fish.”

Starting a community fishing association is no easy task. The SFCFA received start-up funding from the California Coastal Conservancy to help with equipment and leasing costs, and assistance from Ecotrust with legal incorporation, organizational development, and strategic business planning

The SFCFA is also a member of the Community Fisheries Network, an organization assembled by Ecotrust and the Island Institute in 2011. The fisheries network provides a forum for information sharing and cooperation among community fishermen, as well as assistance with development of sustainability standards, business planning, communications and marketing.

With this support, the SFCFA has been able to gain footing in the competitive seafood market while inspiring the development of similar community fishing associations up and down the Pacific Coast. Such groups are now emerging in Morro Bay, San Pedro, and Bodega Bay – all in California – along with Port Orford, Oregon. As they continue to grow, these organizations are placing fair fish firmly on the sustainable food menu.

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