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If you want to meet one of the most successful businessmen in San Luis Obispo County, you will have to travel down to the waterfront in Morro Bay, to the historic Embarcadero, where the sea lions bellow, pelicans swoop low, and fishermen haul their catch on to the docks with cloud-swept Morro Rock behind them.
And you may have to walk half the length of the Embarcadero to find him, because he could be anywhere from the newly-opened Off The Hook restaurant, where he consults, to Giovanni’s Fish Market & Galley restaurant and STAX Wine Bar & Bistro, which he owns, to find someone who’s seen him, and you might only find that they’ve been looking for him as well.
Now some might say he’s elusive, and he may appear that way to anyone who doesn’t know his busy working rhythm and pace, but those who know him well know he’s a man of constant motion, and if you’re in constant motion, too, you’ll have no trouble finding him on the Embarcadero, where the bay meets the Pacific Ocean at the end of the continent, one of the most beautiful perches in the entire country.
So if you think finding Giovanni DeGarimore—Gio to his close friends—isn’t easy then you’d be doubly surprised by his openness and warm smile when you do catch up to him. He connects easily with people, and it’s impossible to talk to him very long without feeling his burning passion for his work, for good food, the ocean, and for Life with a capital “L” in general. Clear-eyed, congenial, articulate, he springs from tradition and represents the “New Guard” on Morro Bay’s tourist-fed Embarcadero. At 38 he’s young and a pier veteran, part of and highly respectful of waterfront history, and a sharp, up-to-date entrepreneur with a unique vision for the future of Morro Bay dining. His European sensibility, taste and sophistication sparkle on the Embarcadero where new ideas don’t always find an easy landing.
“My family’s been on the waterfront since the ’70s,” Gio said. “Central Coast Seafoods, which is the wholesale part of my family business, started here in 1973. Right before that my dad was an abalone diver. For 17 years he was diving abalone between here and Santa Barbara until one day my mom looked at him and said, ‘Hey, Mike, why don’t you try fishing something else?’ He said, ‘What do you want me to fish?’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you fish the fisherman? There are restaurants out here that need seafood…’
“I can’t help but think that she got that from a popular Bible verse where it says: ‘Go make fishers of men.’ She passed when I was eight, so I can’t ask her if that’s what she meant, but I have a good feeling that she did because she knew the Bible inside and out. So the translation was: ‘Fisher, go fish the fishermen.’ And he did. He realized he could start buying the fish. My dad just has this innate ability to run business. He’s the best businessman I’ve ever met. Everything I know about business I attribute to him.
“People now come to me,” he said. “That why I’m currently doing consulting for businesses. Because they want my knowledge, and I learned it all from my dad.”
After 17 years diving abalone, his father, Mike, opened Central Coast Seafoods, then the Finicky Fish I, Finicky Fish II, Finicky Fish III, the Fish Cooker in Paso Robles and the Avila Bay Seafood Company, and the family business grew “very big.” As his dad grew closer to retirement, they downsized to Central Coast Seafoods and Giovanni’s. Gio’s brothers ended up with Central Coast Seafood and he ended up with Gionvanni’s, which his father started in 1985. By the numbers that queue up there almost every day, Giovanni’s is the most popular tourist destination on the Embarcadero.
Growing up on the waterfront
Gio wasn’t actually born on the waterfront, but it was close. At that time, his father and mother were running Finicky Fish II, which is where the Thai Bounty boat next to Tognazzini’s used to be.
“My dad came back one day and there was a note on the door that said: ‘Gone to have a baby. Be back tomorrow.’ My mom had put that note on the door. She went off, had me in the hospital, and she was back to work at that little fish-shaped Finicky Fish building the next day, and I was in a wooden fish box in the back. My crib was a wooden fish box with rope handles and it had a little blanket lined in there, and I was there when I was one-day old. So I’ve been in the fish business since I was one-day old, and I started working as soon as I could see over the counter, probably eight years old when I started selling shrimp cocktails, cleaning abalone shells.”
Gio describes growing up on the waterfront in the ’70s as “kind of surreal. I have very vivid memories,” he said, “of grabbing a fresh baguette and a smoked salmon collar from the new smoker.
“I’d open the smoker and steal a salmon collar out and grab a piece of sourdough bread, and I’d grab my fishing pole and tackle box and go under the docks and fish for perch and smelt all day long, eating my bread and smoked fish. That’s what I did, day in and day out. I remember Mitch the manager would get so mad. ‘Don’t open the smoker!’ he said. ‘You’re letting all the smoke out!’”
In his teen Gio moved over to Finicky Fish III in Atascadero, where he lives, and that’s when he started cooking in the kitchen, making fish & chips when he was about 14 or 15. He began managing the restaurant by the time he was 18.
About eight years ago, Gio took over Giovanni’s and the marine fuel dock where they unload the fish—some to be exported to Japan, some shipped fresh back east, some shipped “anywhere in the world” as the sign advertises in the Fish Market. As established as Giovanni’s was, as prepared as he was for the job, it was still a daunting task riddled with expectations.
“Well, first thing, God, I had such big shoes to fill,” Gio said. “Here was my dad, my hero, the best businessman I ever knew. It was like, I’ve got to do this right! I mean, the whole world’s looking at me. He’s looking at me, more importantly. By that time my daughter was looking to me. So trying to be a role model for my daughter, trying to live up to my father’s expectations, and then trying to live up the community’s expectations, it was a huge burden on my shoulders.
“But I knew that my dad I put good procedures in place—I’d watched him my whole life. The business really was running itself in a good, healthy way for several years before I bought it, so I knew that as long as I didn’t go changing everything for the worst it would be fine.”
Hands-on, plugged in, taking off
“That being said, I’m never good enough just sitting on my laurels. I’m never OK with the status quo,” Gio said. Under pressure to now lead the business, not just manage it, his next-generation ingenuity began to emerge. As soon as he took over, the first thing he did was to start a Website. They didn’t even have Internet service then.
“This was only eight years ago so you can imagine, we were behind the gun,” he said. “I started with a small website that cost me about $800. It was really basic but it had pictures and you could order seafood by calling. It said on the website, ‘Want an order of seafood to go, call us.’ They’d call, we’d take their credit card number over the phone; we’d make them a package and take it up to the Morro Bay Mail Center and ship it off. We were doing, oh, three-four a month.
“Yesterday we sent out 50 boxes, and during the holidays we do around 100 boxes a day, so we have FedEx and UPS trucks that come to our business every day and we ship from here to Maine every day.”
They ship everything from live local Dungeness crabs, live local spot prawns, local sablefish, local rockcod, local halibut when in season, local tuna and local swordfish right now.
“This is local fish that we unload across our own dock. We cut it in our own house, we filet it, put it in a box, and send it off to Connecticut tomorrow—never frozen—and that’s why people love it. It’s from the boat to their door in one day. They love it and it works. So we’re seeing huge growth right now. We’re up 37% this year on our Internet sales alone.”
Gio was just starting to tap the Internet. Social media was beginning to take off and he was all over it.
“Social media wasn’t even really around eight years ago,” he said. “So I started that as soon as it was available. I just wanted to kind of put my twist on Giovanni’s, the next generation, if you will. My dad was very old school. You know, we had a list of phone numbers for people who wanted tuna when it was tuna season. Obviously I automated all that process so it’s on an email signup form. You get notification in your email box when the tuna boats come in. Then email moved on to social media.
“Now it’s Facebook, now you don’t even have to wait to check your email when you get home, now it’s on your phone. So you’ll be at work and say, oh, ‘look the tuna boat’s in at Giovanni’s, $299 for tuna. Let’s go there on the way home.’ It’s helped us succeed and grow during an economy of flat-at-best sales for most people. We’re just starting to see the economy slightly rebound but a lot of people are happy to be flat. We’ve actually shown positive growth every year since I’ve taken over… Every business in America should be doing this…”
Gio doesn’t claim the cutting edge. He recognizes there are certainly better technologies, but as far as making e-commerce work and applying the basic tools with staggering success, “I’m in the forefront,” he said. “I like to go with what I know works, but there’s a lot of people who just don’t take advantage of social media and marketing. It’s a very powerful tool. It equates to, for me, between email and social media, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in sales.
“That’s more than some businesses do in their storefront. I do more on the Internet than a lot of businesses do in their whole store. For me that’s kind of a safety net because say a tsunami came and wiped Giovanni’s out, I would still have that Internet business. I could work that out of a warehouse inland. I could just come pick up the fish from here and Santa Barbara and truck it to Atascadero and ship it out.”
Clearly, between the Web, email and social media, Gio has built a strong next-generation platform for Giovanni’s to thrive on into the future. But he took it one step further. He began to use Facebook as a popular canvas to apply the same colorful philosophy he applies to serving food to customers in his restaurant—with sometimes instant results.
A taste palate of many colors
“The first thing we do is we eat with our eyes, then we smell, then we eat,” he said at Off The Hook, the exciting new Asian-American fusion restaurant that George Leage has opened on the Embarcadero, and for whom Gio is a key consultant. “You can get one of those senses right away on social media. On your phone you get a picture of tonight’s dinner special, which is char-grilled red snapper with fresh vegetables and potatoes. And you can see the picture of the snapper and the vegetables and the herbs. It just looks so good, you know, you see the char marks on it, it looks great. The sushi rolls they have so much color and texture and crunch. You see the vegetables and the shrimp tails sticking out and the gobo root, and the green stuff, the white stuff and the red stuff all sticking out, and it’s like, oh, I want to eat that! And it makes people want to come in here…”
Gio is the epitome of the hands-on businessman. To say he is very involved in the details of the look and taste of the food he serves would be an understatement. He is often found in the kitchens he runs or consults, judging the plating, tasting the food for quality, flavor and consistency, and talking with chefs and staff. Gio sets the bar high. He know what customers expect, and if something isn’t right with the food or the presentation he will demand it be fixed and make sure it is. He is detail oriented, thankfully, he is so detail-oriented that everything he touches makes whatever he’s involved in better.
“I don’t come from a strong culinary background, but I feel that I have a strong culinary sense,” he said. “I learned a lot at home, I learned a lot in the family businesses, and I’ve acquired a niche for spotting good food. Again, it comes down to: it needs to look visually stunning. If it looks visually stunning and doesn’t taste visually stunning, you’re missing part of the component. It doesn’t work. A plus B has to equal C. So half of it is look and the other half is taste. Then from a business point of view there’s the cost involved, but yeah, I want to be visually stunning.”
It is not OK in business to be average these days, he said. “You’ve got to be above and beyond what your competitors are doing. People don’t want average anymore, they want more than what they expect. It’s perceived value versus expectations. With high expectations come high expectations, so if your prices are expensive you better wow people. For me, I want people to not just pick me because I’m the default answer, I want them to seek me out. And you do that through beautiful plates and great product.”
Gio talks about the value of having “the trifecta in restaurants,” found, for example, at Giovanni’s. “For the class and category that Giovanni’s is, we serve a large portion, the quality’s great, and the price is cheap. Now if you think about that, with any restaurant you go to, if you get two of the three you’re lucky. You usually get one of the three. But at Giovanni’s I believe our food’s really good, big portions, good taste, cheap price—that’s the trifecta. If you can get three that’s what makes you successful in the restaurant business—it’s very difficult to achieve that.
“We always had that,” he said. “I fine-tuned some things…”
Gio’s “fine-tuning” led to another major tilt in the business dynamic since he took over—he switched the emphasis more on quality than money, which, of course, has only served to grow the business.
“I brought the quality up a little bit. What that means is, I use a little bit better quality ingredients. I made a little less money but that’s OK. For me, money is not the most important thing in my life,” he said. “You see I’m dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, that’s what I wear every day. Money is not important to me, my reputation is more important than money…”
That’s why when it’s pointed out to him that Giovanni’s is, by all appearances, the most popular restaurant on the Embarcadero, he says right away, “Yeah, and it’s got my name on it so it has to be right. So, for me, whether I made an extra $1,000 a year by using a cheaper mayonnaise or going to a better mayonnaise I’d rather have the better product than save $1,000 a year, and there’s a fine line between those, especially when you’re in a startup business. Now, with Off The Hook I’d like to keep that same mantra, but as a startup business you have to be very aware of costs.”
STAX celebrates second anniversary
By 2010 Gio was looking to grow outward, and he found that opportunity just a few doors north from Giovanni’s when the lone tourist shop at the main intersection where sloping Beach Street meets the Embarcadero became vacant. After brainstorming all the possibilities, he tapped into one of his passions—fine wine—and STAX Wine Bar was born, a bold, classy outpost of wine country on the waterfront, bringing the best of inland Paso to the pier. Impact: Breakthrough. It immediately became the talk of the town, a town where change comes slowly and different is almost dangerous. In the two years since startup, STAX has naturally evolved from a wine bar into a Euro bistro serving tantalizing Euro-style lunch and dinner entrees, vibrant wine and food pairings, and daily specials that a glass or two of world-class wine turn into stolen moments transported to a brilliant, little out-of-way four-star restaurant somewhere in France, Italy or Spain.
Unlike Giovanni’s with more than 25 years under its belt, STAX started from “scratch” as a “labor of love,” and that’s exactly the way Gio wanted it.
“I didn’t open STAX for the money,” he said. “I opened STAX as a challenge to myself, to prove to myself, to my dad, to the world, that I could do something that wasn’t fish. And I did it just to prove that I could start from scratch and do something that wasn’t my father’s doing, that had nothing to do with my dad.”
Gio’s thoughts ran deep as he swung his plan into action. “There are so many people who think that I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. Nothing is further from the truth. We had wooden fish boxes for chairs at our dining room table. We always ate the leftover fish that was going bad. We had the least of the least at our house. That’s what it takes to start up a business, especially in the ’70s and ’80s.”
At the time he conceived of STAX, Gio had a real passion for wine. Seafood and wine go well together, and he had a vision. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that I would enjoy going to, somewhere with leather couches, dark interior, wood floors, granite and marble tops, where you could have a good glass of wine and some cheese and bread for not a lot of money. I thought, there’s nothing like that around here. Paso’s doing it like crazy. Why can’t Morro Bay have something like that?
“So I created an atmosphere that I would want to go to. Turns out everybody in Morro Bay agreed with me and thought the same thing. People love to go there.”
STAX may not be the money-maker that Giovanni’s is, but it wasn’t designed to operate that way. While Giovanni’s is geared to the mainstream and is the gold-standard business model in the tourist district, STAX is easily the most ambitious restaurant on the Embarcadero, a huge leap forward in local dining and sophistication, drawing fine wine and dining enthusiasts to the Embarcadero where ocean sunsets behind Morro Rock provide the master’s touch to a one-of-a-kind dining/entertainment experience.
“We have 130 bottles of wine that you can walk in off the shelf, put it on your table and pour it. Not many places offer that. Typical wine bars have five, 10, 15, 20. I don’t remember the last bar I went in that had 130 bottles of wine that you could choose from, ranging from $14 a bottle to $214 a bottle—Cristal Champagne, Booker, Saxum, Alban’s Reva and Bodegas El Nido.”
“You can have great bottles of wine,” he said. “It’s not enough to have wine because you need to eat when you’re drinking, so it gave me another creative outlet for food. There are certain things I just can’t do at Giovanni’s. It just not that niche. STAX let me explore a little more my creativity, doing things like filet mignon crostinis with a basil pea stew, which is amazing. We couldn’t do that at Giovanni’s. Small plates that really wow your senses. They look good, they smell good, they taste good. We have rotating specials. I can do fresh crab cakes, I can do meat sandwiches, things that when I’ve traveled to Europe I can bring those back and recreate here at an inexpensive price. You can come in, have a plate of food and two glasses of wine for about $20. Where else can you get that?”
STAX celebrated its two-year anniversary on December 6 with a raucous, full-house wine-tasting party featuring Graham Beck Sparkling Wines and catering by Chef Charlie D. Paladin Wayne. The five-course sampler of dynamic food and wine pairings for $30 per person was an electric gourmet dining experience not to be found in Morro Bay before STAX came along to upset the applecart: Rose and caviar; Blancs and smoked salmon; Brut NV and Chef Creek oysters; Brut Zero 2005 with Maine lobster “BLT”; and finally Bliss Demi Sec and chocolate truffle. Stir in the hypnotic reggae vibrations of singer/guitarist Vance Fahie, a full restaurant in full vino bloom, and it’s clear that the focus of STAX is on the total experience, the fun factor, the accume of the whole package of great food, wine and entertainment you can’t find anywhere else on the coast.
STAX was a word twist on the three tall power plant smokestacks that loom over the waterfront. A friend came up with the name. “I wanted it to be very different than everybody else,” Gio said. “I wanted to be a little modern, a little edgy, a little current, if you will, and so that’s why we have the X instead of the CKS.”
If the name works it’s because Gio works and works hard. It is not uncommon to see him sweeping the sidewalk outside STAX. In fact, on his Facebook page, Gio lists his employment at STAX as “Janitor, Morro Bay, 2010 to present.”
“Well, I am the janitor sometimes,” he said. “That’s the thing. To open a business you’ve got to be the janitor. You’ve got be willing to do everything, and that’s how you become the best boss, by doing everything. I spent five-eight years as a fry cook for my dad. You’ve got to start at the bottom. I was a dishwasher for years, I was a manager for years, I was a fry cook for years, I opened the Fish Market for years, I was a fish cutter for yearsI did it all and that makes me uniquely qualified to be boss. So you can say, ‘Hey, you’re not doing that right’ or ‘Hey, you can do this better by doing that’—not because I’m pretentious and I think I know better; no, because I spent years and years doing your job before you did.”
Lessons learned, the road ahead
What does Gio do when he’s not working?
“Gio almost never isn’t working,” he said about himself, “but if I’m not working, I’m raising my daughter, and if I’m not doing that, I do try to make time to travel. I like to scuba dive, I’m a pilot in training so I fly from time to time—I have 200 landings under my belt—and I love to travel. I just got back from France and Spain. I spent some time in San Sebastian and Bordeaux for 10 days. I just had to get away… I need to see the world, taste the world… I eat. That’s all I do. Eat.”
A master cultural assimilator, he has only made a dent in the world he brings back to Morro Bay and translates into new food ideas for his restaurants. He passionately, relentlessly continues to pursue the best tastes and flavors in the world so he can bring them home alive. You won’t find these rareties on tour groups, so he makes his own way.
“I like to go where the locals are, so I go to the back alleys and eat where the locals are eating. I love Mexico, Mexico is like the other woman for me. I don’t know why I keep going back but I keep going back and I keep going back. I’ve been all over Mexico and I love it and I’ll continue to go there. I’ve been to Italy twice, I’ve been to Sicily, I’ve been to Greece, France, Spain. I want to go to Costa Rica soon. My bucket list is so long that if I don’t retire soon I’ll never get through it…”
Of all his accomplishments, Gio is proudest of “being a dad, for sure” and a son. Few so openly respect, love and honor their parents like Gio, and it says a lot about the man, his humility and his heart.
“My biggest accomplishment is being first and foremost a dad,” he said when asked. “My daughter Katherine is the love and inspiration of my entire life and she’s the reason I do everything I do is for her, because if I didn’t have her who would I be doing it for? She’s my everything. My other favorite accomplishment is making my dad proud, keeping the business successful, taking it to places that he says he never would have thought of, you know, ‘You’ve taken this business further than I ever could have dreamed’—that makes me proud, and so I’m happy that he’s happy, and I’m happy that we’re successful.”
Gio will always be grateful to his dad. His work ethic still drives Gio onward. Through his dad’s Herculean efforts, a network of thriving businesses grew with the times, supporting families and the next generation, and that success has also given Gio the priceless freedom to explore and evolve.
“Giovanni’s does one big thing more for me,” he said. “It allows me to express my creative outlets in other businesses. Opening STAX was $150,000. I wouldn’t have had that if I didn’t have Giovanni’s. Giovanni’s allows me travel, it allows me to open other businesses, it allows me to express myself, so for that I’ll always be thankful to my dad because he gave me not only the business ethic but a really good tool to make money. And I’ve learned how to make it make quite a bit of money.”
Amazingly, as young as he is, as successful as he is today, Gio is already beginning to plan ahead for retirement. “I’m probably going to follow in my father’s footsteps and at some point probably start downsizing again. My time is worth more than my money. That’s another one of my mantras. My daughter is 13. Time’s flying by. I want to hold on and cherish as much time as I can, so I don’t want to wait until I’m too old to retire. My dad made that mistake. Some of the greatest lessons we learn from people are what not to do. And so while the greatest things I learned from my dad were what TO do, one of the most valuable things I learned from my dad was what NOT to do. He waited too long to retire. He’s not in good health. He can’t travel. I want to be able to travel.”
His goal is to start retirement at around 45 by perhaps initially taking off a week a month, then the next year two weeks a month. “Maybe by the time I’m 50 I’m only working one week a month, just transition into it. Because I want to see the world and I want to see the world with my daughter, and the person I’m with.”
Meanwhile, the DeGarimore family flourishes, embracing the ocean and all that it provides. It seems like it was always that way with the DeGarimores and the sea, in one form or another. In the beginning, the family came from “somewhere between Sicily and Genoa” as Gio remembers being told. His dad was an abalone diver and his grandfather ran a couple of small retail shops in Morro Bay. The Captain’s Cargo was in Morro Bay for many years, selling fishing and nautical items. He originally had the Whale’s Tail and also a little store called the Ship Store Deli on the Waterfront. Of course those are all gone now.
Today, his step brother, also named Giovanni, runs Central Coast Seafoods which was recently acquired by Santa Monica Seafoods. His other brother, Tony, runs Pier 46 Seafoods in Templeton in the Trader Joe’s shopping center. The brothers and their businesses are prospering.
“It’s fun that we’re all in the business, and to be honest I feel blessed to be part of the story. I’m one of the luckiest guys I know. I have a lot to be thankful for.”
At the end of the long day we call life, the philosophy that guides Gio is based on living life to the fullest. Losing his mother at a young age and watching his father work 12-14-hour days—once working nine straight months without a day off—has fueled his unquenchable appetite for living.
“The main thing is that life is short and you need to live it full throttle,” he said. “So live every day as if it’s your last year and that’s what I do. I realize first hand that life is precious and life is short. You don’t know how much time you’re going to get so you better do something with it while you’re here—and make a difference, make a change, and put your stamp on the world.”
And, like Gio, do it with flair.
Giovanni on Stopping PG&E’s Seismic Test: ‘Everything Was at Stake’
There was a distinct chill in the air in Morro Bay on the morning of August 14, and it wasn’t from the weather because every day is a beautiful day in Morro Bay, rain or shine.
Hundreds of miles north in Sacramento the State Lands Commission was holding a hearing to decide whether or not to approve PG&E’s Environment Impact Report and issue them a permit to begin blasting the ocean with 250dBs of high-intensity noise that would cause “significant and unavoidable” damage to abundant and flourishing marine life in Estero Bay, threatening endangered species, and the very future of Morro Bay itself.
The hearing and what could result from it was so important to Morro Bay, whose ocean backyard had been targeted as the primary test area, that it was transmitted via Skype video feed from Sacramento on to a meeting-room wall at the Inn at Morro Bay where it was screened before about 80 people.
Emotions were riding high. There was a palpable anguish in the room, an intense dread that bordered on the grim air surrounding a pending death in the family. During public comment, speaker after speaker, about 65 of them, reasoned, pleaded, argued, even commanded State Lands to deny PG&E a permit to bomb the ocean.
One of those speakers was Giovanni DeGarimore, owner of Giovanni’s Fish Market & Restaurant and STAX Bistro on the Embarcadero. He spoke with a fire in his gut and he spoke for the entire community when he questioned PG&E’s Environmental Impact Report.
“I heard a lot of slick talking at the beginning of this hearing from people that sounded a lot like politicians,” he said from the podium, his image enlarged on the screen, “but I’m just going to be real simple. Something stinks here. Looking at the big picture it just doesn’t sound right. The ‘taking’—whether you call it catching or killing or whatever you’re doing—of fish, baby sea otters, whales, turtles, fishermen, is not right. You’re going to be killing our community, you’re going to be killing our resources, and it’s not something I support. I’m not anti nuclear but I am anti-killing of our resources and killing of our fishing industry. It’s not right…
“We’re talking about baby sea otters, we’re talking about whales, we’re talking about fishermen, we’re talking about people. Let’s not ram this through. Let’s step back, let’s think about it. Let’s think about what’s good for the people and the environment.”
When the SLC accepted the EIR and delayed the actual permitting decision one week, not only was there no relief from the pressure, but the impact on Gio and the fishermen after the SLC approved the dangerous EIR was clearly emotionally devastating. One by one they filtered out into the parking lot in stunned silence. They just stood or sat and said nothing, staring out from anxious eyes that reflected the pain of their deepest fears being realized.
Flash forward to November 10. Almost three difficult months later, after the community, local fishermen and environmental activists joined forces to oppose PG&E’s 3D high-energy seismic testing, the California Coastal Commission voted 10 to nothing to deny PG&E a permit, and sent them packing with little philosophical wiggle room to return to reapply for a high-energy permit in 2013.
You could almost hear an entire town stand and cheer as one. Along with the rest of Morro Bay and neighboring coastal communities, and those throughout the state opposing ocean blasting for any reason, Gio celebrated this rarest of victories over PG&E and a run-amuck state and local government pushing the test. It was hard to believe and still is for those used to be on the losing end of trying to fight big companies and big government.
Looking at it from the Commission’s perspective, considering PG&E’s huge influence on government agencies, Gio found it “surprising that they did the right thing.”
“I applaud them for doing the right thing which might have seemed easy to us, but I guarantee you behind the scenes it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. At the end of the day the right thing happened, and because of the grassroots effort and because our voice, the people’s voice, got so strong, at the end of the day that’s what really made the difference, I’m sure of it. Because if this thing would have flown under the radar, under the media, it would have gone right through.
“I applaud them for unilaterally coming across the board and saying ‘absolutely not.’ And not ‘come back and try again.’ It was ‘No!’ and a firm no.”
The more he read about the test, the more he realized the impact was going to be devastating and far reaching—had it been allowed to move forward.
“Everything was at stake,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is they cleanse our ocean of any living life. In the best-case scenario they kill millions and millions of sea life. I mean, by their numbers… their best plausible number was millions and millions of fish. It was going to be horrific for the ocean.
“Look at the real numbers,” he said, “and now we’re talking hundreds of millions if not billions of fish and sea life and all the other things that they didn’t take into account, things that can’t swim away when they’re ramping up their power, like abalone, sea urchins, clams, mussels and scallops. And you’ve got to remember that each one of these little pieces affects the ecosystem because of the trickle-down effect, and it goes on and on and on.”
Any prospect of that happening was simply unimaginable and unacceptable to just about anyone that heard about it, except PG&E and the politicians.
“To be brutally honest,” Gio said, “this first caught my attention because it was going to affect me on a financial level because my business is solely seafood. I buy seafood, I sell seafood, I unload the boats that do the seafood, I put fuel in the boats that do the seafood. It was going to affect me in every aspect of my life. So when I first looked at it, I thought, wow, they’re going to put me out of business. I looked at it purely from an introverted standpoint, and at the time PG&E was offering me lots of money to quell me, if you will, and I started thinking about it. I negotiated with them and gave them numbers, and I looked at how much money it could cost me per day.
“But the more I started reading about it, and the more I started seeing how PG&E was really being disingenuous and dishonest, the more I realized that not only were these people not trustworthy, but for me it wasn’t about money anymore, and no matter how much money they offered me it wasn’t going to be enough. I knew that once I started speaking publicly against them, my chances of ever getting a claim with them would be non-existent.”
“So the day that I stood up and testified at State Lands I knew that all chances of getting money from PG&E was out the window, but at this point I didn’t care about money, because it was far bigger than just me now. This is about the environment, this is about the ecosystem, this is about where I live, and more than anything it just came down to right and wrong. At the end of the day it was an easy decision to jump on board with this and put all of my energy into it.”
As a result of his decision, his thinking changed in an unexpected way.
“I’ve never been a self-proscribed tree-hugger or environmentalist,” he said, “but God, I kind of get it now, and it felt good to do something right for the environment that didn’t really mean anything monetarily for me anymore. It was just the right thing to do and it felt good…”
Gio’s concerns about seismic testing didn’t end with the Coastal Commission’s ruling against PG&E on the 3D high-energy test.
“The one threat that really bothers me is the low-energy testing that’s been going on, it seems, without benefit of any permit that I can see. We don’t really know a lot about it. There certainly have to be some ramifications. The fishermen are telling me that the fish catch really seems off this last year… The whole time they’re out there doing this testing, what are they doing? They’ve sunk geophones, I believe, in the MPA. They must have gotten a permit to do that. It was all very low under the radar when all that started.
“We’re in line for a really healthy fish stock for all fish stocks here on the California coast. We need to keep people like PG&E away from doing things to disturb that, and there are other threats out there, too, but right now I think it’s a pretty safe area, as long as we can manage the environment.”
— Ed Ochs