Morro Bay Council Majority Moves to Fire Veteran City Manager and Attorney

A special closed-session meeting of the Morro Bay City Council packed the Veterans Memorial Hall at 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Sept. 12 — on just 24-hour notice.

Two popular senior city staff members, the city’s top two administrators — City Manager Andrea Lueker and City Attorney Rob Schultz — had just received notice that they were about to be terminated, and the City Council was taking public comment on the matter before slipping behind closed doors to make their decision. Continue reading “Morro Bay Council Majority Moves to Fire Veteran City Manager and Attorney”

Bingo Fever Hits Morro Bay

Bingo Master Scott Crabtree

After 30 years of dwindling popularity, bingo is back, and places like STAX Wine Bar in Morro Bay are inviting everyone young and old to the party. Bingo, a game that randomly draws numbers that players match against numbers that are printed on five-by-five cards, has experienced a resurgence in popularity. A game that was once associated with retirement homes and church group events is now a thrill-seeking source of entertainment for an increasingly young, hipster crowd.

On the occasional Wednesday night at 6 p.m., players sit around STAX’s tables and purchase $20 of bingo cards. Three cards appear on one paper sheet per game. The wine bar hotspot aggressively promotes the event through Facebook. The rise of social media is credited as a reason why bingo is being appreciated by a younger audience.

A customer, 23, from Los Osos brought a couple of friends to Bingo Night. “I totally forced them to come,” she said. “They don’t realize bingo is ridiculously addicting. I told them, ‘It’s not grandma’s game anymore.'”

It’s truly sight to behold: players holding onto their ink dabblers with anticipation while using their free hand to sip fine sauvignon blanc and dine on black truffle-seasoned filet mignon crostinis.

Players can order food and drinks between and during games.

The image of elegance and prestige of fine dining on the waterfront quickly turns upside down when the crowd suddenly erupts into cheers and gleeful squeals. The first bingo number was called.

Bingo master Scott Crabtree announced the first number of the night. Immediately, half of the wine bar cheered and the other half booed. STAX Wine Bar owner Giovanni DeGarimore happily joined the choir of boos.

“I see we got a heckler in here,” said Crabtree, who glared at his mischievous friend. DeGarimore grinned and shrugged his shoulders as if he made no noise at all.

“You’re too slow, Crabtree! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” shouted DeGarimore as soon as the bingo master turned away from him.

The audience began to chant Scott’s name, affectionately referring to him as “Scottie.” The bingo master would have none of it. He stood with a microphone in his hand, snarling at the crowd before flashing a smile and continuing the game as if nothing happened. Then Crabtree inundated the crowd with rapid-fire number calls, leaving no room for any tension to simmer.

Make no mistake: it was all in good fun.

Customers enjoyed the Abbott-Costello routines between DeGarimore and Crabtree throughout the evening.

At places STAX, bingo is more than an old-school favorite. It’s an attitude and an experience that keeps people on their toes for two hours. Yet time quickly flies as players wait eagerly for their desired number to be called.

While the sun slowly set over Morro Rock and the last remaining rays of sunlight shined brightly through STAX’s windows, the players turned silent. But as people’s bingo cards started looking like a giant ink blot, the crowd went wild.

Then suddenly, “BINGO!” A winner stepped forward with the winning card in her hand. She won the jackpot.

Many young people come to Bingo Night. Some attend because of the sheer adrenaline while others play for the prizes. At STAX, prizes range from gift cards to cash. The prize increases in value after each game. By the sixth and last game (“Blackout”), the cash prize is $100. But by the last game, players are too involved in matching the last missing number on their card.

When STAX had bingo night for the first time, the wine bar was packed. There was a rush to find a free table to sit at. Owner DeGarimore, a self-proclaimed novice at the game, sat and played the game with everyone else. He bought his own bingo cards and quickly mastered the game with a little help from his friends.

“Yeah, I’m feeling it,” he admitted. “It’s old-school, kinda, but not really. It feels new.”

STAX Wine Bar has Bingo Night on Wednesday nights from 6-9 pm. Bingo Night does not happen every Wednesday, so check their Facebook page for dates. For the best experience, call STAX Wine Bar 805-772-5055 to reserve a table, and purchase six games worth of bingo cards for $20. STAX is located at 1099 Embarcadero, Morro Bay.


FishLine Connects Seafood Lovers to the Sea

As soon it was released on the Web on March 25, several hundred people downloaded the FishLine application for their smartphones. That’s a large number, given the fact that people don’t readily associate the fishing community with cutting-edge modern technology, but FishLine marries those two worlds surprisingly well. FishLine’s convenient assortment of features allow people to find fresh, local seafood from Half Moon Bay to Port San Luis in the quickest, most efficient way possible. Phondini Partners, the application’s developers, take it one step further by forming an intricate bond between the user and the fishermen — and that makes FishLine not only a resourceful download, but also an enriching experience.

Fishline’s database of fresh and local fish is updated frequently by local fishermen and seafood retailers. Currently, users are able to browse by species, including — but not limited to — black cod, crab, halibut, lingcod, oysters, rockfish, salmon and sanddabs. Other species are added when vendors are available to sell them. Once the user selects their desired species, a list containing a diverse assortment of fishing vessels, restaurants and fish markets appears. Users can select any of the search results to find the vendor’s address, additional contact information and product availability.

The database is also organized by location (“Ports & Places”). Ports & Places is useful for people who are looking for seafood in a specified area. The gallery offers an assortment of photos from each area, which showcase local seafood restaurants, serene nature photography, photos of food and more. In many respects, FishLine has a built-in appeal to tourism. For instance, other features found in Ports & Places include updated weather and marine forecasts, tide and surf charts, Google Maps, and CHP alerts. Event listings are available on the app’s main menu.

FishLine presents a comprehensive list of local fishermen and their biographies. They offer a surprisingly candid look into the local fishing industry and the people who have dedicated their lives to it. This helps application users get acquainted with people they would be doing business with, lending a measure of integrity and assurance to an otherwise mundane business transaction. FishLine supports the Faces of California Fishing project, which features bios, stories, poetry, recipes and pictures from the fishing community.

Users have access to online, mobile-friendly seafood markets including American Abalone and Morro Bay’s Giovanni’s Fish Market. As of version 2.03j (7/19/2013), FishLine doesn’t have other local online storefronts available. The application would benefit greatly from having a merchant terminal or simple payment gateway such as PayPal, which would keep all transactions within their framework. Additionally, Phondini Partners and participants would have transaction data that could track sales and application usage. Since FishLine is continuously evolving at a rapid pace, their online commerce functionality should improve even more.

FishLine has a very basic, clutter-free interface geared toward people who are new to the era of smartphones. It doesn’t take a lot of time before one has a masterful grasp of the seemingly endless features that help establish a connection between seafood and lovers of the sea. While many smartphone applications tend to have a narrowly tailored focus, FishLine shines as an ambitious exception to the rule while simultaneously introducing the fishing industry to the digital age.

FishLine (Phondini Partners) is financed in part by a grant from the Central California Joint Cable/Fisheries Liaison Committee. FishLine is a community-driven effort, supported by an Advisory Board: Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons; Councilman Noah Smulker; Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce CEO Craig Schmidt; Executive Directory of Morro Bay Visitor Center & Tourism Bureau Karin Moss; Morro Bay Harbor Advisory Board Chairman Jeff Eckles; and Fisherman & Restauranteur Mark Tognazzini. 

FishLine is available for download for free at:

FishLine on Apple iTunes App Store

FishLine on Google Play Store

FishLine on Amazon AppStore for Android

Aquarium Delirium


The Morro Bay Aquarium has been a source of enjoyment and curiosity for more than 50 years — and controversy for the past few decades. Owners Dean and Bertha Tyler, both elderly, with strong bonds in the seaside community, have maintained the aging aquarium, which became a rehabilitation center for marine life in 1984. Though many in Morro Bay have bestowed decades worth of gratitude and praise on the Tylers, critics contend that the focus should be on the alleged mistreatment of sea lions and seals that live in small pools located on the Embarcadero just a stone’s throw away from open waters. The 50-year lease is up for renewal in 2018, and the battle lines have been drawn between the believers of a beloved tourist attraction and critics who refer to the aquarium as “Seal Guantanamo.”

On June 25, the Morro Bay City Council voted 3-2 to initiate the Request for Proposal (RFP) process for the embattled aquarium. By voting for RFPs, the City has authorized staff to conduct a bidding process that solicits business proposals from potential tenants of the aquarium space, specifically aquariums and marine-friendly institutions. The RFPs will also allow the Tylers to re-submit their proposal, though the majority of the Council felt that their current “modest” proposal — which proposed a few “cosmetic upgrades” but no significant improvements to improve animal care — was inadequate. The Tylers’ proposal also included a fee hike for the aquarium, which would raise funds for additional, undisclosed improvements.

About 100 residents and interested parties from across the county and afar — with a mixture of views about the aquarium, how it’s run and what should happen next — went to the meeting to listen or speak about the issue, which has garnered statewide and national attention.

National animal welfare organizations such as the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have publicly condemned the aquarium for alleged neglect and unethical treatment of marine life. In a June 12 letter to the City, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle joined Senior Scientist Dr. Naomi Rose in opposing the aquarium, stating that the animals were kept in “small, dingy enclosures that are inappropriate and do not educate or inspire visitors about the wonders of marine life.” Meanwhile, PETA’s Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, Delcianna Winders, wrote to the City Council on June 24 that the “barren, shallow display tanks deprive seals and sea lions of everything that they need to survive and thrive, including room to swim, depth to dive, and the companionship of their families.”

In early June, opponents of the aquarium launched a petition on to shut down the Morro Bay Aquarium. The petition was covered in local media and social media circles. The petition went viral, reaching a total of 6,010 signatures by June 25. People from around the globe signed the petition. The signatures were e-mailed to the Morro Bay City Council and staff, overwhelming the City’s e-mail system. Council and staff also fielded hundreds of phone calls and letters, which were mostly in opposition to the aquarium.

Bertha Tyler told the Bay News in their July 4–10, 2013 issue that the aquarium has received 13,000 petition signatures from aquarium visitors. The ROCK has visited the aquarium on several occasions and did not see a petition available for people to sign. When asked about the petition on July 4, an employee at the aquarium said she was unaware of its existence.

San Luis Obispo County Animal Services has documented hundreds of complaints about the aquarium. County Animal Services manager recommended that the aquarium receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums before applying for a new 10-year lease agreement. To date, the Tylers have not included accreditation as part of their proposal, which now appears to have become a prerequisite for submitting a proposal.

Harbor Director Eric Endersby stated that the RFP draft will likely be brought to the Council in August.

At the June 25 meeting, Mr. Tyler, 94, approached the lectern to give a presentation or — as critics in the audience were expecting — a defense of his aquarium. Instead, he talked about the various aquariums he visited around the country, which he said were “older” and had “more problems” than his aquarium. Mr. Tyler’s presentation was not substantively different than the one he gave at the May 2 Harbor Advisory Meeting, where he focused on other aquariums’ shortcomings and stated that the seals and sea lions at his aquarium were “happy.”

When he returned to the lectern on June 25, however, Mr. Tyler appeared more defiant. After taking a swipe at “unfavorable publicity… from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about,” Mr. Tyler accused Councilwoman Christine Johnson of skipping out of a tour of the facility, a claim which Johnson later denied. Johnson stated that she previously toured the aquarium when the Tylers were not present.

Mr. Tyler also claimed that the some council members met with Central Coast Aquarium officials without inviting him. The Central Coast Aquarium expressed interest in the aquarium lease site. A City official speaking on condition of anonymity since he has not been publicly authorized to discuss the issue revealed to The ROCK that the City reached out to the Tylers on “several occasions […] almost obsessively” to meet with the Central Coast Aquarium. Phone calls to the Tylers were not returned, the source said.

“We even reached out to [Tyler’s grandson, aquarium director John Alcorn], and he told us, ‘We’re not talking,'” the official told us. “[The Tylers] go up there and ask to renew their lease for ten years, but they really don’t want to make any structural improvements. We gave them suggestions. We tried to help them along, but they’re just not interested.”

Despite City staff’s attempts to resuscitate constructive talks with the Tylers, dissenting council members George Leage and Nancy Johnson lamented that the Tylers would be losing control in the RFP process. Leage stated that the RFP process voted on by the majority of the Council would “take them out of the driver’s seat.”

At the June 25 meeting, Alcorn declined comment to the The ROCK and referred to an attorney standing beside him. The attorney, J. Tavener Holland, has not issued a statement on behalf of the aquarium prior to press time.

The Tylers have long maintained that they’ve “done a lot of things to make the aquarium more suitable for the [United States Department of Agriculture],” but they’ve stopped short of addressing concerns and violations issued by the USDA, their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) unit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and County Animal Services, to name a few.

The New Times was the first media outlet to produce an aggregation of reports from those agencies. The reports outlined issues and violations that were found at the aquarium. In his May 17, 2012 article “The aquatic anachronism,” Colin Rigley portrayed an aquarium that was unabashedly out of touch with modern standards and regulations. Rigley provided inspection reports, other reports, warnings and activity logs, which unveiled several troubling aquarium conditions.

Sea lions housed at the aquarium swim around in shallow pools that currently meet APHIS standards, but until two years ago the pools were 19.7 inches deep, falling short of  the three feet minimum. Though the aquarium is now in compliance with the minimal space requirements, the sea lions remain in close quarters; they’re swimming in pools that are more shallow than what is commonly shown at other known aquariums around the country.

“We’re the only place where you can buy seal food and feed the seals,” Mr. Tyler told the Harbor Advisory Board on May 2. “So when people come to Morro Bay Aquarium and they buy a bag of seal food, they go out there and they feed the seals and they clap with both hands […] Someone comes in and feels like a seal trainer when they come out.”

The seal food in question was criticized by APHIS, which stated that the aquarium “fail[ed] to ensure the food for marine mammals is wholesome, palatable, and free from contamination.” The ROCK spoke to APHIS officials, who continue to express concerns about the well-being of the seals and sea lions at the facility, explaining that the “food issue […] remains an issue for us.”

Without notifying the owners beforehand, The ROCK visited the aquarium to observe the marine life there and the conditions they were in. Sea lions posed for families that tossed them food. Children ran back and forth on the narrow, potentially slippery corridor, laughing gleefully as they watched the silent harbor seal and three sea lions — looking healthy and lucid — swim underwater in their pools. Maggie, a sea lion who just turned 26, rested on a raised platform and basked in the warmth of the sun entering the enclosure . The other sea lions kept busy rolling around in no apparent signs of distress. However, the pool appeared crowded and chaotic once all the creatures were swimming together.

Mayor Jamie Irons stated at the May 2 Harbor Advisory Board meeting and the June 25 City Council meeting that the Tylers were stewards of the community who are “good people” and in compliance with all state and city laws. Supporters of the aquarium, including Harbor Advisory Board chairman Jeff Eckles, praised the affordable, family-oriented aquarium as a “respected institution.”

The aquarium is a “respected and well loved establishment with a rich history in Morro Bay that has touched many people,” Eckles told The ROCK.

The opposition has ostracized the Tylers for allegedly pocketing thousands in “tax-free profit” and abusing mammals at the facility. There were also claims that the aquarium kept marine mammals in poor conditions as a for-profit business under the guise of a non-profit. Environmental activist Mandy Davis wrote in the May 29 issue of the New Times that the Tylers “benefited from the discomfort and abuse of other living beings in the name of maintaining a Morro Bay institution.” An exhaustive look into their records show that the vast majority of revenue generated by the aquarium is invested back into aquarium upkeep expenses. Virtually no income is generated at the aquarium. Despite several warnings and non-compliance citations, there is no evidence that the Tylers personally abused or “benefited from the discomfort and abuse” of the marine life at their aquarium.

The opposition has heavily referred to user reviews on Yelp as source material for their documentation, including a video uploaded to YouTube on June 8. In addition to calling the aquarium “Seal Guantanamo,” emotionally charged reviewers compared the aquarium to concentration camps (an “aquatic Auchwitz” ), Hell on Earth, Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison and African-American slavery.

“These people need to be lined up and shot!” wrote one Yelp reviewer.

Despite the vote to issue RFPs, which creates a level playing field for those who wish to participate, including the Tylers, the Morro Bay Aquarium continues to be a source of controversy in a community known for its progressive aquatic outreach, education and tourism. But there is one thing that all factions involved in this debate can agree on: the aquarium needs an upgrade. The question now is, “What kind of upgrade will Morro Bay Aquarium supporters and opponents be seeing?” The possible answer to that question will not likely appear until the end of 2013 when proposals are received and reviewed by the City Council and public.


The ROCK’s Guide to Health Food Stores and Healthy Dining in SLO County

The ROCK’s A-to-Z Guide to Health Food Stores and Healthy Dining in SLO County


Baywood Park-Los Osos Farmers’ Market, 2nd St. & Santa Maria, Los Osos. Mondays 2 p.m. – 4 p.m., Tel: (805) 748-1109. Other farmers’ markets: Atascadero, Paso Robles, Templeton. Website:

California Fresh Market, 555 5 Cities Dr., Pismo Beach. Tel: (805) 295-7162. Website:

Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market , 700 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 544-9570. Website:

Grande Food Markets, 1154 E. Grand Ave., Arroyo Grande. Tel: (805) 489-1584. Website:

Harvest  Natural Foods, 6985 San Luis Ave., Atascadero. Tel: (805) 466-3202.  Website:

Morro Bay Farmers Market, 2650 Main St., N. Morro Bay. Thursdays 2:30 p.m. – 5 p.m. Tel: (805) 544-9570. Website:; and Main St., & Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay. Saturdays 2:30 p.m. – 5 p.m. Website:

Natural Foods Co-op of San Luis Obispo, 745 Francis Ave., SLO. Tel: (805) 544-7928. Website: www.naturalfoodscoop. Facebook:

New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, 1531 Froom Ranch Way, SLO. Tel: (805) 785-0194. Website:

Paso Robles Health Food, 1191Creston Rd. Suite 113, Paso Robles.
(805) 238-3987. Website:

SLO Veg, 747 Woodbridge St., SLO. Tel: (805) 709-2780. Website: Home delivery.

Sunshine Health Food Store, 415 Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay.
Tel: (805) 772-7873. Website:

The Natural Edge, 480 W. Grand Ave., 555 S. 13 St., Suite F, Grover Beach. (805) 489-3855. Facebook:

Restaurants that serve all vegan/organic/raw dishes, or offer a number of options of vegan/organic dishes on their menu, sourced with local, organic ingredients when possible.

Apple Farm, 2015 Monterey St., SLO. (805) 544-6100. Website: Facebook:

Big Sky Cafe, 1121 Broad St., SLO. Tel: 805-545-5401. Website:

Bliss Cafe ,778 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 547-0108. Website: Facebook:

Crazy Sushi Fever, 8050 El Camino Real, Atascadero. Tel: (805) 464-5027. Facebook:

Eatz by Dezign, 851 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 542-9504. Website: Facebook:

Enzo’s East Coast Eatery, 733 Higuera St., SLO. Tel:  (805) 547-1207. Website:

Fig Good Food Restaurant, 5945 Traffic Way, Atascadero. Tel: (805) 460-9900. Website:

French Country Bakery & Bistro, 7425 El Camino Real, Atascadero. Tel: (805) 461-8888.

Good Tides Organic Bistro, 1326 2ns St., Baywood Park, Los Osos. Tel: (805) 528-6000. Website:

Goshi Japanese Restaurant, 570 Higuera St.. Suite 155, SLO 93401. Tel: (805) 543-8942. Facebook:

Jaffa Café, 1308 Monterey St., SLO. Tel: (805) 543-2449; 207 E. Branch St., Arroyo Grande. Tel: (805) 202-2080; 1344 Park St., Paso Robles. Tel: (805) 239-3366. Website: Middle Eastern. Mediterranean.

Indigo Moon Café, 1980 Main St., Cambria. Tel: (805) 527-2911. Website:

Kreuzberg, 685 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 439-2060. Website: Facebook:

Kumi-Ko Modern Japanese, 3830-1 Broad St., San Luis Obispo 93401. Tel: (805) 434-2332. Website:

Linnaea’s Cafe,1110 Garden St., SLO. Tel: (805) 0541-5888

Mandarin Gourmet, 1316 Madonna Rd., SLO. Tel: (805) 541-4590. Website: Chinese. Vietnamese.

Mei’s Chinese Restaurant, 1759 Shell Beach Rd., Shell Beach. Tel: (805) 773-2908. Website:

My Thai Restaurant, 1815 Osos St., SLO. Tel: (805) 545-6996. Website:

Nature’s Touch Nursery & Harvest, 225 S. Main St., Templeton. Tel: (805) 434-3062. Website:

New Frontiers Natural Foods, 1531 Froom Ranch Way, SLO. Tel: (805) 785-0194. Website:

Noi’s Little Thai Takeout, 1288 2nd St., Baywood Park, Los Osos. Tel: (805) 528-6647. Facebook:

Oasis, 675 Higuera St, SLO. Tel: (805) 543-1155. Website: Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Mediterranean.

Outspoken Café, 1422 Monterey St., SLO. Tel: ( 805) 545-7664. Website: Beverages. Juice Bar.

Petra, 1210 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 439-1999. Website: Facebook: Mediterranean, Greek.

Roxanne’s Café, 1227 Archer St., SLO. Tel: (805) 549-0878. Website:

Sally Loo’s Wholesome Café, 1804 Osos St., SLO. Tel: (805) 545-5895. Website:

Shalimar Indian Restaurant, 2115 Broad St., SLO. Tel: (805) 781-0766. Website:

Shine Café, 427 Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay. Tel: (805) 771-8344. Facebook:

Thai Classic Cuisine, 1011 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 541-2025.

Thai Elephant, 7320 El Camino Real, Atascadero. Tel: (805) 466-6515. Website:

Thai Palace, 1016 Court St., SLO. Tel: (805) 594-1744. Website:

The Natural Café, 698 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 546-9200. Website:

The Sal Paradise Bakery Sandwiches & Focacceria, 1028 Chorro St., SLO. Tel: (805)-541-1300. Website:

Thomas Hill Organics Market Bistro & Wine Bar, 1305 Park St., Paso Robles. Tel: (805) 226-5888. Website:

Urbane Café, 962 Higuera St., SLO. Tel: (805) 541-5100. Website:

Yanagi Sushi, 1203 Marsh St., SLO (805) 541-5282; 1221 Park St., Paso Robles. Tel: (805) 226-8867. Website:

The Global Gems of Robin’s of Cambria

At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.

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At a magical intersection of the Pacific and the piney hills and dells just south of Hearst Castle, deep in the timeless, rustic heart of Cambria, thrives one of the finest international restaurants on the coast.

At first glance, one might think Robin’s was a lovely, vine-laced old home in Cambria’s historic East Village, and it once was – and still is. Robin’s continues to radiate that warm feeling because it was a home a long time before it became a restaurant, and owner Shanny Covey has cultivated that ambiance while also offering airy, contemporary, heated indoor and outdoor patio and garden dining.

But what truly sets Robin’s apart is the inspiring menu graced with intricate dishes that bring the world to little hidden Cambia. To trace the global influences and diverse flavors that illuminate Robin’s menu, one has to first understand that Robin’s is the sparkling reflection of the sophistication of its longtime owner and co-founder.

Raised in Singapore, one of the great food hubs of the world, Shanny moved to the US when she was 17. While studying at LSU she took the Greyhound west to meet a friend who was living and working in Cambria for the summer. Captivated by the beach and beauty of the area, she moved out to Cambria in the mid ’70s and met her former husband, Robin.

“He’s the reason we started Robin’s. The restaurant was named after him,” Shanny says. “He loved to cook and he loved to cook international food. He would learn how to make curries and different things like that.”

That international sensibility permeates all their dishes in one way or another. Curries are still a vital part of the menu. In fact, Robin’s menu hasn’t changed much over the years because people return for their favorites, and the menu is basically a collection of favorites.

“There’s a few things on the menu that have been there from day one, like a couple of the curries, the lamb curry, the curried chicken, the chows, and at lunch time the Mexican chopped chicken tacos – they’ve been on there for a long, long time. They’re very popular.

“We always have to have some staples on there that people come back time and time again for, like our salmon bisque. And then we have room to be creative and change other things out also. So it’s a nice balance.”

That’s why specialties like the salmon bisque (8 oz. $5/16 oz. $8), Crispy Vietnamese Spring Rolls vegetarian-style with tofu, kim-chee salad, chili oil and sweet chili sauce ($8) and Singapore Chicken Sate with pickled cucumber salad and spicy peanut sauce ($10) are carved in stone on the menu. At the same time you can also find an outrageously flavorful 100% natural angus-beef burger with tomato, grilled sweet onion, white cheddar, house sweet pickles and aioli, served with herb garlic fries ($13).

The dinner menu dazzles with an Ahi Tuna Poke with pineapple, chiles, coconut, sesame seaweed and siracha ($13), an All Natural Flat Iron Steak with garlic smashed potatoes, organic asparagus, crispy onions, cabernet peppercorn butter ($26); Slipper-Tail Lobster Enchiladas with lime crèma, avocado, white cheddar, tomatillo salsa verde, cumin black beans and brown basmati rice and cilantro-mint chutney ($21), Tofu Pad Thai Noodles & Prawns with cabbage, bok choy, green onions, cilantro, egg, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, spicy tamarind soy sauce ($20), and four different curries: Roghan Josh, Indian lamb curry ($21); Tempeh Korma, Indian coconut curry with vegetables ($18); Thai Green Chicken in mild coconut curry ($19); and Malaysian Chicken in spicy coconut curry ($19).

A quick survey of some of the wealth of robust ingredients that go into their designer dishes, side dishes, salads , sauces, dressings, preserves, chutneys, butters and aiolis – all made from scratch – hints at the excellence of Robin’s. For example: the piquillo almond tapenade (with the Meze Plate); kim-chee (with the Spring Rolls); sambal aioli (with the Crusted Calimari); louie sauce (with the Crispy Crab Cake); ricotta salata (with the Grilled Tuna Asparagus Salad); house sweet pickles (with the Angus Burger); mango salsa (with the Halibut Tacos); candied pecans (with the Bloomsdale Spinach Salad); citrus pepita basmati rice (with the Grilled Sea Bass); saffron & dried fruit couscous with the Morrocan Duck Breast); sweet corn polenta (with the All Natural Pork Chop); and lemon thyme jus (with the Roasted Chicken).

Once the depth and richness of all the tastes and flavors blended into their “homecrafted global cuisine” are absorbed, the brilliance of Robin’s really hits home.

Shanny has set a high standard in both substance and style that has been refined over time and invigorated under Chef Michael Wood. But even in the beginning, before opening Robin’s, Shanny and Robin had established the direction they were headed in food quality.

“Before we opened the restaurant we owned a health food store, so eating fresh, healthy foods was always a priority for my husband, and it continues to be a priority, not just for myself but also for my guests,” she says. “I want to feel good about what I’m serving my guests.”

The health food store was located on Main Street, where Indigo Moon is today.

“We had a little café. People could take food out in the garden or to go. Then at one point we held once-a-month sit-down dinners, community, family-style in one of the rooms there. That was probably the birth of the restaurant per se. We developed a following of people who would sign up ahead of time and come to dinner. It was a really great experience.”

When they first opened the restaurant in 1985 it was on Bridge Street. Then they moved to Burton Drive to an adobe home built in the ’30s by a former concrete construction foreman who worked for W. R. Hearst. The original living room, foyer and fireplace are still there.

So from health food store to café, from Bridge Street to Burton Drive, Robin’s has always been committed to home and healthy food, and now with “farm to table” more popular than ever, the restaurant is riding the new wave.

“It’s definitely become more and more popular over the last five to 10 years, and as far as we’re concerned at Robin’s, we’ve always been farm to table. We’ve always gone to market from the health-food-store days and from when we started the restaurant,” Shanny says.

Robin’s has always been ahead of its time, and now almost 30 years later the world is catching up with them. Now, more and more people want to eat as organic or natural and fresh as they can get.

“We’ve always tried to source local as much as possible, especially with our produce, going to the markets. And when we go to the markets we always search out unsprayed and organic first.”

Robin’s goal is to create an enjoyable living room/patio dining experience and service for their special guests that match the quality of the food.

“We’re very dedicated to providing hospitality to our guests from the heart. Our purpose is to deliver warm hospitality and delicious global cuisine,” Shanny says. “I get excited, my staff gets excited, when we can make people get excited and enthused about the things that they taste here, the international flavors, and we want to make them feel warm and welcome.”

Shanny and her staff have made the restaurant a home away from home. “The ambiance fits what we do here because we want people to feel at home, the home that they come to when they join us for a meal.”

And it will be a meal with global roots, made with a world of goodness in the ingredients, prepared with an elegance, flair and attention to detail found in the finest restaurants in America.

“I feel that’s what makes us unique,” Shanny says. “We’ve gone from our tag line of ‘home cooking from around the world’ to ‘international fare,’ ‘farmer’s market fresh’ – it’s all about providing an eclectic experience to our guests. We can have a group of four people come in and they can all have some different dish from around the world, and I’ll be excited about it.”

Every Sunday in the summer Robin’s presents live music as part of their “Summer Nights in the Garden” series. They prepare a tapas menu, feature a local winery, and alternately offer mellow vocals, jazz, violin, and the flamenco-style guitar of LA-based Robert Longley.

“They’re magical evenings in the beauty of the garden,” she says. The luxurious gardens have also attracted local artists, and now Robin’s hosts Wednesday morning art sessions for those with paint, brush, canvas and easel.

The drive is a big part of the fun, one of the most scenic in the country, and well worth it from any point in the county. And it’s fun when you get there. Evergreen Cambria is an important, star-crossed California coastal town because of its central location – halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on spellbinding Highway 1 between Morro Rock in Morro Bay, miles of ocean and beaches, and Hearst Castle, just south of Big Sur. It’s also important because of its unique land and ocean resources. Moonstone Beach in Cambria is a great place to view migrating whales, sea otters, elephant seals, and glorious California sunsets.

Entering Cambria Village for the first time is like stumbling into a western town from a bygone era – it’s even got a Main Street, a general store, antique shopping and local shops, but there’s much more to it. Take a look around and you will discover that Cambria is a contemporary oasis for excellent, high-quality restaurants, paced by Robin’s, a rich California-Asian garden of fusion delights in full bloom where the wide ocean meets the tall pines.

Robin’s Restaurant, 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, California 93428. Hours: Open daily. Lunch Monday-Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 3:50 p.m.; Early Dinner 4:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m.; Dinner Nightly 5:00 p.m. – 9ish p.m.; Sunday Brunch 11:00 a.m . – 3:20 p.m. Telephone: (805) 927-5007. Web:,,

The Smokin’ Deep Sea Adventures of Tognazzini’s Dockside 3

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Tourists traveling Morro Bay’s Embarcadero north of Beach Street toward Morro Rock are often surprised to see a large white fishing boat in the parking lot with its raised bow pointing south, going nowhere.

Now the surprise inside of a surprise for tourists and locals alike is what’s become of the historical boat-shaped building, and how it’s been reconnected it with its origins while setting a fresh course in Morro Bay fish dining.

Originally a fish market in the ’70s, then a series of fish shacks, and most recently home of Thai Bounty, the landlocked two-story with a colorful history on the waterfront is now sailing under a new flag. It’s been remodeled and rechristened Dockside 3, joining the mini fleet of Dockside seafood restaurants owned by the seafaring Tognazzini clan – Mark, Bonnie, Leah and Marc.

What is this phenomenon, though, three Dockside restaurants within earshot of each other? There’s the original Tognazzini’s Dockside, one of the premier high-end seafood restaurants on the Embarcadero since 2004; Dockside Too, the scaled-down, outdoor fish-market hang-out with live music, since 2006; and now Dockside 3 since January — almost next door to each other. What does Dockside 3 offer that other Docksides don’t?

That’s the next surprise. Dockside 3 is a combination smokehouse, pub and oyster bar, and the eye-opening menu is welcome news to all diners and drinkers seeking exciting new fusions on the changing, contemporary Embarcadero.

“Our mainstay is our smoked product,” says Mark Tognazzini, who was born and raised in Morro Bay and has been an active commercial fisherman for 43 years. “We’re smokin’ five or six different fish — salmon, swordfish, albacore, scallops and shrimp. We’re also smokin’ tri-tip and chicken now, and they’re all ingredients in our tacos and wraps.

“So if you have a shrimp taco here it’s going to be a smoked shrimp taco. If you have an albacore taco it’s going to be a smoked albacore smoked taco, and if you have scallop ceviche it’s going to be smoked scallops. We’re also doing fresh clams, mussels and oysters.”

Captain Mark and Dockside 3’s head chef Edgar studied the art and craft of smoking with “Smoker Jim” Ruddell, the owner of Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos, and widely recognized as the rock star of smoking fish on the Central Coast.

“Jim Ruddell was absolutely instrumental in helping us get up to speed quickly on smoking,” says Mark. “He said, ‘here’s the machine to buy, here’s what to do, come on up to my place.’ Edgar and I went up there on three different occasions and spent hours with him, and he said, ‘The only thing you can’t have is my shrimp recipe.’”

They can’t give Jim enough credit for their smoking and what he’s done for them, although they do things a little differently, of course.

“Jim was an inspiration, a wealth of knowledge, and just so generous in sharing with us so we didn’t have to make some of the mistakes we could have made,” says Mark.

Friendship easily trumps competition with Mark and Jim. They both remember a time when “every port used to have a smokehouse,” says Mark, and they’d both like to see that time come back. “He was excited for us.”

Though there are some menu items in common with the other Docksides, Mark says “75% of what we do here is new menu, 25% old menu – we do our chowder here at Dockside 3. There’s certain things we do over here that emulate what we do over there.”

But where Dockside 3 undocks from its parental moorings is where it really takes off. Dockside 3 offers items that seafood gourmets won’t find anywhere else on the waterfront, rarely found treasures that are suddenly easily accessible, which means not having to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy them, just drive up and walk in to people-friendly Dockside 3.

“We do clams casino here,” says Mark. “I don’t think anybody else on the waterfront does it, and it’s a home run. We’re doing some oysters with the mignonette sauce, which is a vinegar, peppery sauce, and different things you just don’t see very much.

“We have a pretty full menu at our other two facilities, but we always wanted to do something different.”

In Morro Bay, different is good. At Dockside 3, different is steamed clams in wine sauce ($11.95), oysters Rockefeller ($6.95 for three/$12.95 for six); clams casino ($6.95 for three/$12.95 for six); steamed mussels ($11.95); shrimp ($8.95) or scallop ceviche tostadas ($9.95); smoked tri-tip wrap ($9.95); and swordfish kabob ($5.95), to name just a few dishes of distinction.

Dockside 3’s most popular item is the tacos ($2.95 – $3.95 each) – smoked scallops, smoked shrimp, smoked swordfish, smoked albacore, smoked salmon, as well as smoked tri-tip and smoked chicken. Choices of sauces include chipotle, shrimp aoli, fish aoli and spicy hot. The sauces also dress the wraps ($8.95 – $12.95), which come in a choice of tomato, spinach or white tortilla.

Oysters on the half shell prepared different ways with different sauces – traditional cocktail-horseradish sauce, maisonette, ginger and champagne – are also popular. Along with the array of fresh smoked fish, the raw oysters and cherrystone clams (each $5.95 for three/$10.95 for six) are the corner shells of Dockside 3’s versatile menu.

“With our oysters you can have them raw, barbecued, smoked, Rockefeller or casino,” Mark says. “With our clams you can have them raw, barbecue, Rockefeller or casino.”

It’s this wide selection of tasty combinations that sets Dockside 3 apart from its established elders and everybody else on the waterfront – or off. That and the unexpected rewards of the smoked tri-tip, scallops and swordfish, and after seeing how good the smoked tri-tip turned out they’re now trying out smoked turkey for sandwiches served in the main Dockside.

“It has its own little personality,” says Bonnie Tognazzini about the cozy quarters of Dockside 3. “We’re just about three months old, and so it’s still developing, which is why the menu is not set in stone yet. We’re finding the things that are working. We’re still playing with it and having fun with it.”

The Tognazzinis have renovated the inside of the restaurant, always a tiny space, and brought it up to date while retaining its original character. Six classic black bar stools pull up to a sparkling new oak-veneer bar top where diners can watch their dishes prepared in an open kitchen in a rather novel environment.

“I like really like to sit here and watch the guys cook,” says Bonnie. There’s something about watching them cooking your meal that I find quite entertaining, like watching a cooking show.”

The kitchen is miniaturized and efficient, and they’ve definitely made the most of limited space; it required specialty equipment that had to fit or was made to fit. Packed into a very small area are a smoker and standard grill. The smoker, custom built out of Wisconsin, is identical to Smoker Jim’s but about two-thirds the size because a full-size unit wouldn’t fit.

With the intimacy and activity of an American sushi bar, Dockside 3’s fish-market-to-your-plate experience is magnified by the cheerful pub atmosphere. There’s the bar stools and bar top. There’s a TV for that sports-bar effect for those following the big game. Their huge selection of draft beers on tap ($2.50 a glass, domestic) has helped make Dockside an irresistible destination for seafood specialties and endless brew.

“We’re not pretentious here,” Mark says. “We’re a pub, and our most expensive beer is $3.95. We have 16 on draft and another 35 in the bottle – 50 beers in all.”

Marc Tognazzini, Captain Mark’s son and partner, helped upgrade the interior woodwork and created valuable outside dining space by building several tables and chairs. At night they light the outdoor fire pit to chase away the chill.

Dockside 3, 1245 Embarcadero, Morro Bay, California 93442. Telephone: (805) 772-8130. Hours: Open daily 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. or earlier depending on season and reason.

40 Years of Sunshine

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Texas-native Greg Barnard, 35, was a negative five years old when Sunshine Health Foods opened 40 years ago on Morro Bay Blvd. in Morro Bay. Mr. Barnard is the third owner. He bought it from the second owner for whom he worked about three years. He bought the store in 2006, and in six years he’s taken it to the next level – becoming the best health food store and restaurant on the coast.

Now, not only is Sunshine the top destination on the coastline for fresh, organic produce, it is also boasts a new jewel, the best – and healthiest — restaurant on the street, the Shine Café, which opened last July.

Barnard had been no stranger to the industry before buying Sunshine. His previous jobs in college had been working in health food stores. He noticed when he moved to the area in 2000 that Sunshine was for sale and he filed it away.

“I had come out to help some friends from Colorado open a business,” says Barnard. “I’d worked at two other health food stores before, but I didn’t necessarily have the intention to stay in the industry. I liked it but I had actually a better opportunity, and that’s what brought me out to the coast.”

He attended Texas State University for business, but he also participated in recreational activities there, and worked at the school’s recreation center running outdoor educational programs such as kayaking, rafting and mountain-biking trips. His friends on the coast were opening a European-style youth hostel and needed someone to run their outdoor activities. They called him up about a year and a half after he’d finished his degree and told him to move out.

“I didn’t have a whole lot going on,” he says. “I was working at a health food store in Austin, and it sounded great. So I came out here and I was helping those guys, and living with them, and I realized the project that they were starting to work on was going to take a lot longer than anticipated, so I started working at New Frontiers because that was the kind of the experience I had.” He worked for New Frontiers on and off for close to three years.

“I’d been trying to work here because I like the small model, but they didn’t have the money to hire anyone and they were kind of doing it themselves,” he says. “So then I went to South America and came back, and at that point they’d grown enough take me on nine hours a week. They gave me three shifts three hours apiece, and then it just started snowballing from there and I started working a lot more.

“I knew in the back of my head that at one point they’d tried to sell, and you know if they tried to sell at one point, that’s always probably going to be an option later on down the road. So I kind of took that job knowing that they had tried to sell in the past, and that might be, at least around here, the only way it could happen (for me). The only option was for someone willing to sell to me. And I didn’t have a ton of money.”

For some, relationships are just as important, or even more important, than money, and that human connection paid off for Barnard. “Because I had developed a great relationship with Bill (Nicholson) who’s the old owner here — he’s kind of like a dad to me out here — he took the little tiny bit of money that I had down and he carried the note over five years. Otherwise I would have never been able to make a move like that. So that was great. I just paid him off last January.”

The Rise of Shine

Last July, after investing a lot of work and considerable expense, the Shine Café opened next door to their shipping and receiving office and store. They originally had the café in the back of the store. The room that became the new café was essentially behind the old café.

”When I bought this store, we would just sublease the café,” he explains. “It wasn’t part of what I purchased. It was operating independently in the back, and, to be honest, I feel like that’s what makes it so unique, and (what) makes it have so much character now is that it’s the culmination of (many years of store history).

“I can remember as far back as eight different owners of the café. I mean, it was just a little juice bar kind of place that made crackers for the longest time. And so it took all of those people. Everyone made a little contribution and had a couple good recipes and then the best of the best stuck and it just kind of kept rumbling. The recipes are kind of the greatest hits of all the people that came along.”

Shine also runs weekly specials. “Someone will have an idea for a special,” he says, “and if it’s just great then we’ll try to keep it around. We would have a lot more, but space has always been our issue, even over in the new place. That’s why we’ll rotate the specials and try to bring the popular ones back, but we don’t really have the space or capacity to add all of our favorite things on to the menu.”

Barnard didn’t own the café for a long time and didn’t intend to be in the restaurant business, but, he says, “I was tired of subleasing this little tiny spot that was in the back of our business that no one really understood that it was a different dynamic. No one understood that it was a separate owner. For all anyone cared it was just under one roof.

“So when that last gal hit the wall and was ready to sell, then we just bought it from her in essence to simplify things, and we were all of a sudden in the food service industry, and never really had a huge desire to be. But I felt like it was such an important part of what I was trying to do. The food service goes so hand in hand with what we’re trying to do in fresh food.”

Gourmet Café

As busy as it is, the café is not a big money-maker, says Barnard, “because we’re not willing to compromise our ingredients. There are a couple of things we’re not willing to do in order to make profit because we feel like the service that we’re providing is far more important…”

The Sunshine commitment begins with the ingredients, he says.

“We source as much of our organic ingredients as possible. Even the spices that we use are organic, all of our cooking oils, 90% of our produce. We could get a lot of this produce for half the price that we’re buying it for, if we were willing to go straight conventional. We weren’t willing to do that, and we weren’t willing to raise our prices to the point at which we were making what a normal restaurant margin would be because then all of a sudden we’re chasing off half of our clientele.

“We wanted it to be a place where you just don’t come on your birthday because our dinners are $22, or you come when you have a friend in town. We want it to be a place where the people who live here can come to eat every day and not break the bank. We want it to be comparable to anywhere else you can eat besides really, really expensive fast food. We want to be able to feed people for $9, $10, $11.”

Not willing to compromise on quality and price points “put us into a little bit of a quandary when it comes to profit,” he adds, “because the simple thing would be to just raise the prices.”

But there is a synergy between the café and the store, and, he says, “I make my living in the store. That’s why I’m always willing to just write off a potential loss over there because it’s just one number, just part of a larger, more important number.”

The trend toward eating fresh, organic foods delivered from the farms where they were grown to the dinner table has skyrocketed over the past several years, soaring in popularity across the demographic board.

Former owner Bill Nicholson taught Barnard “about the different varieties that could be grown when you’re not growing for shelf life or distribution life – it’s a whole different animal. And the vitality of the nutrients intact, the enzymes intact, and all these things that are still intact when it’s consumed a day, two or even three days after it’s been picked, just that freshness is amazing, and the taste, and you get the nutritional benefit.

“The reason why people are saying our food (at Shine) is good is because of the core ingredients that we start with; that’s 80% of the battle. Yes, there’s some creativity but the fact that we start with really high quality, really fresh ingredients makes it a lot easier to make it taste good.”

Sunshine is deeply into organic practices and buys produce from three farmer’s markets a week: the Monday afternoon market in Baywood, which is the favorite; Thursday in North Morro Bay; and Saturday morning in San Luis. The store enjoys great relationships with local farmers. Sunshine also receives deliveries twice a week from an organic distributor, Veritable Vegetable, out of San Francisco.

“They don’t carry a single item that’s not certified organic and, to me, you’re not trusting the word of somebody, you’re just getting what you know that it was a certified organic farm and you know exactly what went into that,” says Barnard.

“They felt as strongly as we do about it, for them to go through that process, and it’s been difficult to bridge that gap because we do still feel that it’s just as important to get it fresh and local, maybe even more important than it being certified organic, but it puts us in a quandary where we have to use our best judgment in order to get the highest quality food.”

The high quality of the produce in the store becomes palpable when dining at the café and tasting those same quality ingredients in the cooking. Everything is made from scratch and crackles with vitality. While the fresh quality permeates the café’s entire menu, the flair with which the visually stunning dishes are presented lies closer to the presentation you might find in a fine sushi restaurant than a typical health food café. The taste and quality leave no doubt that you are eating gourmet health food at its life-affirming best, a charge of instant health.

The café’s menu categories are Breakfast (weekends only), Smoothies, Soup & Salad and Entrees. Highlights include Buckwheat Pancakes with any two toppings from bananas, blueberries, walnuts, carob chips or strawberries ($8.50/two pancakes, $4.25/one); Mudslide Smoothie made with bananas, peanut butter, carob, dates and almond milk ($6); Hearty Vegetable or Sweet Potato Tortilla Soup when available ($3 cup/$5 bowl); Tempeh Salad with seasoned tempeh, fresh vegetables, avocado and choice of dressing ($8.50 small/$10.50 large); Black Bean Tostada with seasoned black beans, brown rice, spring mix, fresh veggies, avocado, sesame seeds, on a crispy tortilla, served with salsa and spicy chipotle dressing ($9.50); Tempeh Reuben of seared strips of seasoned tempeh served on sprouted grain bread with cilantro dressing and stoneground mustard – topped with sauerkraut, tomato, lettuce and avocado and served with a side salad ($10); and Vegetable Spring Roll, a rice-paper roll filled with fresh veggies, avocado and seasoned tempeh served with sesame ginger dressing ($4). Customers can try the weekly special, or create their own special dish (starting at $8).

“The most popular items in the café are definitely the spring rolls and the tostada,” he says, “and with the tostada it’s the sauce in combination with the crunchy shell that people like. They still get that kind of feel-good comfort food, but accompanied by that salad. The soups do pretty well, too. Everything does pretty well since we can’t afford to keep it on there if it doesn’t do well.

The 1500-square-foot store offers the same high quality organic produce that energizes the smaller café — as well as an array of nutritional supplements and natural body care products, and a wealth of specialty bulk items like yogurt and carob-covered sweet treats, dried fruit, dates, grains, organic spices, and many hard-to-find healthy alternatives, boxed, bottled and refrigerated, for everyday recipes and dishes.

“In the store, our fresh produce is probably does the highest volume,” he says. “We do a lot of bulk, the bulk food in the back. We have a nice balance because of the fact that we weren’t here in ’73 and there was just a vitamin shop for a lot of years. That’s how it started. It didn’t start transitioning into more of a grocery store until Bill took it over. He had it for about 11 years, and I bought it six years ago, and about 18-19 years ago started bringing more of the food element in. So from the early ‘70s on through the ‘80s it was more of just a vitamin shop, and he was able to establish a pretty good core vitamin-supplement business. We’ve been able to maintain that, and we do sell a fair amount of that.”

A Bright Future

“It’s taken six years to get to this point,” Barnard says. “Finally I feel like our head’s above water and we’ve got the café set. We’re about a freezer or a refrigerator, some new flooring and a couple of light fixtures away from being completely done with the original vision of the whole thing.”

Within the next year Barnard hopes to further integrate new systems “that are allowing us to do more volume and spend more time with customer service, allowing us to spend more time doing the things that we haven’t had the time to do up until now.” Sunshine now has close to 20 “committed” employees.

Barnard had a son a year and a half ago, and hopes those systems will make life easier at the store and allow him to spend more time at home.

“No industry garners this kind of growth without garnering the same attention from competition,” he says. “We’ve been so fortunate to get to the growth that we have in this town, being the size that it is. We don’t yet have a Trader Joe’s, we don’t yet have a Whole Foods. We have that in San Luis and they’re slugging it out there, but we’re the only thing here.

“There’s nothing in Los Osos, there’s nothing in Cambria, so we’ve pulled this whole coastal region. We’re pulling people from Ragged Point because there’s nothing there. So I feel like we’ve got this little niche that we’ve been really fortunate to carve out, and we’ve been able to kind of go under the radar without this competition. That may change in the future…”

Regardless of any future competition, Sunshine won’t be changing its no-compromise formula for success. More and more people are realizing that what you eat has a direct impact on one’s physical and mental state. Basically, everything that we do is dictated by what we eat, and Sunshine is finely tuned into that knowledge.

“I think a lot of people wonder why we went with the vegan café. You have tourists in town that will come in and want to give our food a try because they’re looking for a turkey sandwich or a tuna fish sandwich, and there’s not a whole lot of really strict vegans that work here or live in Morro Bay.”

So why vegan then? Is Sunshine harboring secret hate against meat?

“Meat is not necessarily the evil,” says Barnard, “but we feel like you should eat more vegetables, so if we provide a restaurant with only vegetables then people are going to inadvertently have to eat more vegetables if they eat here. If we get people to get off of their meat and potato diet once a week, twice a week, then we feel like we’ve accomplished that.

“We’re not claiming that everything in here is perfectly great for you, but compared to the option, compared to the standard American diet, compared to the standard American grocery system, we’re just trying to provide a viable alternative to that system, and I feel like we’re accomplishing that. We’re giving people a chance to make better decisions.”

Sunshine Health Foods, 415 Morro Bay Blvd., Morro Bay 93442. Hours: Monday-Sunday, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Telephone: (805) 772-7873. Shine Café, 427 Morro Bay Blvd. Hours: Breakfast, Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, Sunday, 10 a.m. to noon; Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Telephone: (805) 771-8344. Website: Facebook:

The Holy Smokes! of Ruddell’s Smokehouse

Smoked Shrimp Taco
Smoked Shrimp Taco

If you are fortunate to be motoring one of the most breathtaking stretches of scenic Highway 1 on the Central Coast, you must exit in Cayucos and drive through this quaint old beach town to the edge of the Pacific.

If you happen to drive by the exit, distracted by the panoramic ocean view, you’ll have to turn around. If you don’t, you’ll regret it until you come this way again.

Because right there, at the corner of D Street and Ocean Front in seaside, sun-drenched Cayucos, you will find one of the smallest but most sought-after food  lover’s destinations in all California, Ruddell’s Smokehouse.

Have you ever tasted fine smoked food? If you have then you know it’s the King of BBQ. The aroma alone is enough to awaken you from a long spell of bland dining. What hot smoking does to tenderize and enhance fresh, quality fish, meat and cheese elevates them to a new dimension of taste that gives every bite a rich, burnished flavor not easily forgotten.

In recent years, the smoked fish and meat tacos and sandwiches that pour out of “Smoker Jim” Ruddell’s 250-square-foot euphoria factory have become as magnetic an attraction in Cayucos as the beach, surf and sunsets. They are that good – and Jim knows it, and he’s just grateful that things worked out that way.

You see, Jim feels he’s the caretaker of a recipe for happiness he’s glad to share, a recipe that has changed his life and brought the awesomeness of Cajun-smoked shrimp, albacore, salmon, chicken and pork loin – as well as smoked oysters and cheddar cheese on the side – to pilgrims of the palate from near and far.

Jim sells his signature albacore and other smoked specialties by the pound, but it’s his tacos that sell by the ton – the shrimp taco ($6), smoked albacore taco ($5.50), smoked salmon taco ($5.50), smoked chicken taco ($4.50) and smoked pork loin taco ($4.50) are what people wend their way to Ruddell’s for – that and the lure of beach and roar of the waves.

Smoked Salmon Taco
Smoked Salmon Taco

Each taco begins with a full salad of greens, chopped red leaf, sliced tomatoes, shredded carrots, chopped celery and apples inside a hot flour tortilla. When your fish, chicken or pork hits the salad and tortilla – after being smoked southern-style in Jim’s savory blend of gourmet herbs, sugars and spices over alder wood or apple wood – it’s transformed into something boldly unique, a bursting California Cajun taco that doesn’t just stand out in a crowd, it creates a crowd.

Ruddell’s large, robust sandwiches – smoked pork loin ($10), smoked chicken ($10), smoked salmon ($11.50) and “The Ultimate Tuna” with smoked, glazed albacore ($11.50) – are all served on a fresh baked roll with spicy mustard, mayonnaise, sliced tomatoes and fresh salad greens.

Salads and vegan are also in the mix – with smoked albacore or salmon ($12.50), smoked chicken ($11) or a tossed green ($7.50); or veggie taco ($3.50) or veggie sandwich ($7.50). The fish menu is seasonal and based on availability, and sometimes also features ahi and ono.

Wrapped and ready for take-home in the deli case are slabs of smoked salmon ($19.99 lb.), smoked albacore ($18.99 lb.), a whole smoked chicken ($8.50 each), smoked pork loin ($10 lb.), smoked oysters ($2 each/$24 dozen), and smoked cheddar, mild and sharp ($11.50 lb.). You might want to call ahead and place an order.

Ruddell’s is take-out only and offers a few patio tables and chairs for local consumption. However, the beach and ocean are only steps from Jim’s front door, and they’re free. To those who know the true value of things, it’s a rare California experience to be missed at your peril because this one’s got a boomerang attached to it, and you’ll be back. Bottled water and Calypso Natural Lemonade are the regular beverages. Note: If you find a table, sit on your napkins or put them in your pocket or the wind will blow them away and you’ll be running down D Street after them.

Ruddell’s Smokehouse, 101 D St., Cayucos, Calif. 93430. Hours: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day. Telephone: (805) 995-5028. Website:



“Smoker Jim” Ruddell and the Sweet Smell of Success

As Jim Ruddell sees it, he has one of the best jobs in the world, and what Jim sees up close every day is a sight for sore eyes for everybody else in the world. How many people’s front door opens to the beach and Pacific Ocean, the coastline, open sky and a face full of sun? And because he’s so good at what he does, he knows that this is the way it’s going to be for him as long as he wants, and that’s why he’s one of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet on the street in Cayucos.

Jim couldn’t imagine in his wildest dreams that he would be as successful as he is at something he loves doing. His life has been a journey to salvation, searching for a better life for his family, struggling to stay afloat, and finally hitting the bright side of the moon. You read about such success stories; you dream, work hard and pray, but don’t think it will happen to you. So Jim Ruddell lives in a constant state of disbelief, stunned and humbled at the same time. Because it’s happened to him.

“When I started here on a day like today, you could have rolled a tumbleweed down that road and not hit anything.”

That’s what Cayucos was like when Jim opened for business in December 2001.

“For those first several years there wasn’t a whole lot of business here. Since then Cayucos has very much become a destination, and there’s so little of the Cayucos kind of experience left to be found that people are really digging it, they’re really gravitating towards it,” he says.

“Up till about three years ago – I meet a lot of people here,” he pauses to add a little weight to his words, “people would come in here and I started hearing, ‘Wow, this is such a cool town. We know real estate’s going up and it’s getting kind of pricey but that’s OK. We really like it here. This a great place. We’d love to come and live here.’

“About three years ago it did this 180 degrees and turned into, ‘This is such a great town, it’s got so much potential.’”

Jim, who has surfed all his life, looks out at the ocean.

“It’s the last beach town on the coast,” he says, explaining the attraction that brings more and more people to the cozy oceanfront community. “When I grew up in Southern California, all the beach towns were like this, every one of them, and a good portion of them had a smokehouse right by the pier, and they would service the fishermen and the hunters. They’ve all been exploited now, and those who recognize that are the people that are saying Cayucos has so much potential.”

New Road Ahead

Jim’s journey up the coast began with major changes in his life and career.

“My wife and I are refugees from Los Angeles,” he says. “My daughter was born on April 27, 1992, and the Rodney King riots started on the 29th.” That was the beginning of the end of the Ruddell family’s life in LA. Jim was running the service department at Sheridan Toyota in Santa Monica at the time. “Because of the curfew I was the only car on the Santa Monica Freeway at 6:30 p.m. going home. I had a two-day-old baby in the hospital, and I went, ‘We’re done, finished.’ It took us a year…”

It helped that he had some idea where his next stop would be. But he also knew it wasn’t going to be easy starting over after years in LA and making it work in a very different economic environment.

“My brother has lived here since the ’70s, and we looked at this area for many years, but you have to have something to do when you come here; you don’t just move here.”

So Jim took the big leap, transitioning for awhile by working for the Toyota dealership in San Luis Obispo. He was involved in building the new Toyota dealership on Los Osos Valley Rd. But the move had its scary realities. The serious downshift in pay from LA to SLO wasn’t working. He had been in the car business a long time, and he was burned out on it before he moved up to the Coast. He knew he had to get out and that it would be risky. And he knew he had a future; it just wasn’t in the car business.

He didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

“My whole family on my father’s side is from the south, Louisiana, we’re Cajun people, so I’ve been around the fire all my life, I’ve been around smoke,” he says. “So when I came up here I looked around. I’d heard about the Santa Maria barbecue. It’s rural, agricultural, and I thought there’s a bunch of people that are barbecuing and smoking up here, doing some really cool stuff. So I started looking around, and by and large it’s very ordinary. There’s absolutely nothing here that’s particularly good.

“I built a smoker in my backyard after work, and I made a deal with a guy up on a ranch up here on 41. He gave me an old barn and I built myself a smokehouse. At that time there were a lot of fish coming into the harbor and it was very affordable, so I started smokin’ fish and selling it out of the back of my truck by the side of the road. I’d pull up and put my signs out — when I wasn’t getting run out by the cops and busted by the health department…”

Stepping into Greatness

Driven by his need to get out of the car grind and build his own business, and guided by his ability to make things happen when he sets his mind to it, Jim took the plunge.

“I started my business in 1996, and I quit working several times because I ran out of money,” he says. “One day I was working at GMC up in Paso, and Kathy called me and said, ‘Honey, how would you like to wake up in Morro Bay every day and drive all the way to Cayucos to sell your smoked fish every day of your life?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ She said, ‘No, no, when you come home tonight. Let’s go for a ride, I want to show you something.” Kathy took him to the corner of D Street and Ocean Front in Cayucos and showed him the location. “This used to be the Taco Temple. This is where they started.’”

Taco Temple needed a dining room. They had outgrown the tiny 250-square-foot space, and so they opened their business a few miles down the highway in North Morro Bay by Spencer’s market and kept the lease on the Cayucos property. Says Jim,”I looked at this and thought, ‘I can do this, I can make that happen.’

“I had no idea what the configuration of it was going to be, only that I was going to sell more fish.”

That 250 square feet, by the way, includes bathroom and storage, and a smoker about the size of an old refrigerator.

“I have a 3,000 square foot business in 250 square feet, and it works,” he says. “And it continues to grow and we continue to accommodate that. What’s really cool about it is we’re below the radar, kind of, we’re off the grid in a way. Like I don’t get visits from famous chefs going, ‘How do you do that out of that little hole in the wall?’ If they knew the kind of groceries I was putting out here… I do a lot of business out of 250 square feet. So I made a deal with Adam and Dawnelle, the people who own the Taco Temple… and voila, here we are.

“I have never put the key in that lock and not wanted to be here,” says Jim about his job. “Is that just wonderful? It’s impossible to put words to it. It’s surreal. And it’s just continues to grow. It has its own energy. There’s these bywords like synergy, but it’s true.”

Word Spreads

In 2005 the Food Network’s “BBQ with Bobby Flay” show sent a crew to Ruddell’s and taped an episode. “That thing still has legs,” he says, amazed. “They did this episode and it came out on a Friday before President’s Day weekend of 2005. I was totally unprepared. We were impacted to the point where we could not get the food out the door. The next morning we were just inundated. They ran that show once a month for three years and then they said they would continue to run it once a month for four years, which they did, and when that ran out a new food kitchen channel came along and they co-opted it, and they started showing it.”

That set off a pure-gold chain reaction. Sunset magazine, Coastal Living magazine, even The New York Times, have, with a boost from the internet, sent smoke signals nationwide and worldwide. Ruddell’s is the most looked-at feature in the history of The New York Times Travel Magazine, says Jim. “They did a taco tour of the California Coast, and when they told me The New York Times, I said, ‘New York Times? Who reads The New York Times?’ Boy, do I know about The New York Times now! When people are planning their itineraries they go to The New York Times. It’s a pretty cool deal.”

Now social media has discovered Ruddell’s, and it’s eating up his tacos like the smoked candy they are.

“I wouldn’t know a tweet if it was swimming in my soup,” he says, simply incredulous over it all, his Smoker Jim’s cap pulled down almost over his eyes. “There’s still so much I don’t get.”

Becoming Smoker Jim

What Jim does get very well now is that no matter what happens, no matter what tomorrow brings, he has something that people want. “That’s what makes this thing happen, and the ambiance, the whole thing, I have found that my base time here at the store is highly productive – because I’m Smoker Jim,” he laughs. “This persona kind of happened, this Smoker Jim thing.”

Now he’s recognized in a bookstore at the San Francisco Airport, and walking around Sacramento he’s approached by a guy who goes, ‘Dude! You are the dude, you are the taco dude! My father-in-law loves you!” It happens all the time, says Jim.

“So I’m just riding this thing along, having a ball, and just fascinated by it.”

With the kind of success he’s had it’s natural to think about how far he could parlay the business. But Jim has resisted the temptation to multiply his success by opening up more smokehouses. He knows it could be a real money-maker, “but,” he quickly adds, “that is not what this is for…

“I don’t take credit for any of this,” he says, acknowledging the Man Upstairs. “I’m just participating and I’m kind of a custodian in a way. I don’t own it… He’s the boss, I just run the thing. It’s a gift. I’ve got five complete business plans all ready to go. But when I realized what it is I put all those plans in a drawer.

“I have been effectively saved. My life has been incredible. You know, you read interesting stories. Well, this is mine and it’s real. It’s real and it works every day.”

For all his success, Jim remains modest, down to earth and appreciative. “If I started taking myself too seriously I would have nowhere near as much fun, and probably it wouldn’t work. The whole idea is when people walk in that door they know this thing is what it is – it is what it is, and there isn’t another one of these anywhere and there’s not going to be.”

Right now, business “stays at a level where it’s manageable and I don’t have a bull’s-eye on me.” He has three employees and says, “I’m going to bring a fourth guy on because there’s not enough of me to do what I gotta do…”

To be exact, there’s only one of Jim, and he’s got a routine that would fry any man. “By the time I get here it’s about 20 minutes to 3 [in the a.m.] and I work until about 10, and when I get done smoking and doing some of the stuff I have to do, I prep a little bit for the guys, and they come in at 10 and prep to open at 11 o’clock. So theoretically I am done at about 11 o’clock, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. It’s almost a constant adaption because the business just keeps getting bigger…”

Ruddell's Smokehouse
Ruddell’s Smokehouse

Smokehouse Secrets

And the reason it keeps getting bigger is staggeringly simple: People talk. Word of mouth. They don’t stop talking about the food.

“It’s incredible smoked food,” says Jim sincerely. “It’s really, really good! I mean, you bite into one of them tacos…”

Some say the secret is in the sweet, pungent smoke of the fruity woods that fuel his electric smoker. “I use primarily alder for the albacore and the salmon. I use the apple wood on my jerky and my shrimp. It’s lighter. It has a little more punch than the alder does to give it a bit more body. We don’t have a lot of it around here. There is some. It’s from the northwest. There are a lot of alder trees up there. Some of the Indians have been using alder to smoke their salmon for probably thousands of years.”

Some say it’s the apples. “The apples are my wife’s deal,” he says. “They’re See Canyon Fujis. I buy a bunch of them and I put them away. That, and what really makes that thing happen is we have a flour tortilla, we put some olive oil on it and put it on the grill. Then we flip it over and put some cumin on it, and then the sauce, which is whole mayonnaise and a little Gulden’s Spicy Mustard. When it all hits that hot oil, the cumin, that’ll send you off in to spasms! It really works.”

Rise of the Taco

“When I opened up,” says Jim, “I thought I’m not going to sell enough fish to pay the bills and make some money so I’ll make some tacos, maybe make some sandwiches. I figured maybe 30% of my business would be out of the kitchen, 70% would be out of the deli case. It’s exactly opposite, 180 degrees off. I sell a lot of fish out of the case but I sell a lot of tacos.”

How many tacos is a lot? “On the 4th of July I sell 1,000 tacos in one day,” he says. “I put up a little tent out here, and we close it off. Nobody can go in. Because there’s 50,000 people in town on the 4th of July. It’s a hoot. It’s Americana at its absolute best.”

Preparations begin early that morning. “The crew comes in a 7 to start making tacos so by 11 o’clock we’ve prepped and we have 400 tacos ready and we just phase them. These things have really good legs. Cal Poly kids during finals will buy a dozen of them, stick them in the refrigerator and eat them for several days. So they hold up.”

Jim has also developed a business providing tacos for local marriages, which, because of its idyllic location, Cayucos is known for.

“A lot of people get married here at the Vet’s Hall and various venues. They call me up and they want 200 tacos for their party, so I make them before work, before we start our day, and everyone of those people have called me back and said ‘you made our wedding.’ Most of them said, ‘I didn’t even get one, I couldn’t even get to them.’ I took 250 tacos a day down to the Sea Glass Festival two weekends ago and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon that taco was as good as at 10 o’clock in the morning.”

Now, the only questions left to debate among smoked fish aficionados involve splitting the hairs of superlatives: Are Jim’s tacos the best in the west? Based on the sheer flavor explosion to the senses, many people believe it’s a fact. And so they keep coming. Every day. Like the waves rolling up on the beach almost up to Jim’s doorstep.

Today, Ruddell’s Smokehouse enjoys one of the highest ratings ever on Yelp, and is featured on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. And one night you’ll be up late channel-cruising and run into that episode of “BBQ with Bobby Flay” from 2005, and you’ll recognize the Smokehouse and recall that taste, of tender, tangy smoked fish, alder wood and apples, and the next day you’ll drive the magnificent Highway 1 to Cayucos, one of the most beautiful highways in the world, and you’ll walk into Jim Ruddell’s smokin’ knothole by the ocean, step up to the counter and say: “One smoked albacore taco for here – and one to go!”

View From the Front Door
View From the Front Door


Are Endangered Central Coast Sea Otters Lab 'Rats' Caught in PG&E's Halted Seismic Test? A Special Report

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]wp-content/uploads/SueArnold.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Sue Arnold is the CEO of California Gray Whale Coalition. She is a former Fairfax investigative journalist who regularly lobbies the US government in Washington DC, as well as the European Parliament and Commission on whale issues.[/author_info] [/author]

otterIn the last four years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has issued permits to various organizations allowing takes by harassment of approximately 1,602 southern sea otters. This figure represents more than half the sea otter population of the Central Coast. Since 1998, many southern sea otters have been captured, recaptured, anesthetized, and subjected to surgical implants and removal of transmitter devices from their stomachs.

An investigation into the use of Central Coast sea otters as marine laboratory rats is long overdue. Fish & Wildlife Service has a mandatory responsibility to protect animals listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Subjecting these animals to capture and recapture, anaesthetics and surgery is surely the stuff of a Dr. Strangelove movie. Yet the evidence demonstrates the Service has allowed and even encouraged invasive experiments.

Central Coast residents have been focused on the fate of 40 sea otters destined to be the “canaries in the mine” for PG&E’s high-energy seismic surveys (HESS). But in denying PG&E the HESS permit in November, the California Coastal Commission made moot the ensonifying experiment.

Since that denial, residents and conservation organizations have been attempting to find out what exactly is happening to the implanted otters.

A lack of proper responses by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has raised significantly more issues.

In fact, with so many unanswered questions and a continuing refusal to release the relevant permit(s), except under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the public is entitled to ask whether the real facts are being deliberately withheld and if so, by whom? And more to the point, why?

If a species listed under the ESA can be subjected to years of highly invasive experiments at a time when the population estimates are demonstrating a slowing recovery, disease problems and high mortality by sharks, what is the point of legislation?

Let’s go back in time.

In September 2005, the Marine Mammal Center submitted an application for reauthorization to implant subcutaneous and abdominal radar transmitters in rehabilitated southern sea otters for purposes of enhancement associated with rehabilitation and post-release monitoring activities.  It is unclear how many sea otters were allowed to be implanted or how many had been implanted in the past given this application was for a reauthorization.

Three years later, on April 7, 2008, a notice in the Federal Register[1] advised as follows:

Applicant: U.S. Geological Survey -Western Ecological Research Center, Santa Cruz Field Station, Santa Cruz.

The applicant requests renewal and amendment of the permit to take up to 850 southern sea otters from the wild for the purpose of scientific research on the ecology of the species. This notification covers activities to be conducted by the applicant over a five-year period.

A permit to take 850 sea otters represents almost one-third of the population. The Notice does not indicate any details of the scientific research on the ecology of the species to be undertaken.  

On July 18, 2008, Fish & Wildlife Service issued a final rule consistent with the Marine Mammal Commission recommendations in response to an application from the Western Ecological Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, to renew and amend a permit authorizing the permit holder to conduct tagging studies and aerial surveys of California sea otters. The permit holder requested that the permit be renewed for an additional five years and amended to authorize an increased number of recaptures of animals implanted with recorders and several changes to research plans and protocols.

The Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) recommended that the Service approve the requested amendment, provided that the conditions contained in the existing permit remain in effect and that the proposed revisions to the research have been reviewed by the applicant’s Institutional Animal Care and Use committee. The Commission further recommended that the Service consult with the applicant to ensure that authorized takes are limited to the minimal number of animals necessary to produce statistically meaningful results, and the permit, if renewed, required that post-release monitoring be conducted to verify that the research is not having unanticipated adverse impacts on the population.

On October 31, 2008, the Service issued the amended permit. We have no idea of the numbers involved.

On April 7, 2009, in a letter headed Otter Mortalities Permit No. MA672624, addressed to the Western Ecological Research Center (WERC), U.S. Geological Survey, the Marine Mammal Commission, in consultation with its Committee of Scientific Advisors on Marine Mammals, reviewed the permit-holder’s final report on the deaths of three sea otters surgically implanted with time-depth recorders and VHF tags under Permit No. MA672624, and offered the following recommendation and comments.

Yet another unknown number of otters.

“The Marine Mammal Commission recommends that the Fish and Wildlife Service:

•  authorize resumption of the research, provided that the proposed modifications to the permit-holder’s research protocols are implemented;

•  request an explanation as to why the proposed modified research protocol does not include the option of using intra-operatively a single dose, broad-spectrum antibiotic that has a longer half-life than those currently used to provide additional protection from bacterial infection; and

•  request that the permit-holder clarify what would constitute “excessive stress” as discussed in the proposed modified research protocol.”

No further discussion of excessive stress or stress is canvassed in any of the documents that the writer has researched. It would be illogical to assume that capturing a sleeping sea otter, transporting the animal to shore to be anaesthetized and subjected to surgery would not be stressful. Stress can have major impacts on immune systems and reproduction.

Correspondence to WERC continues:

“Three sea otters (one male and two females) died during November 2008 at Big Sur, California, subsequent to capture, handling, and surgical implantation of TDR and VHF tags under Permit No. MA672624. Only two of the carcasses were recovered. The necropsy reports for the animals identify bacterial sepsis as the likely primary cause of death in both cases.

“Regarding otter 1093, it appears that bacteria (Vibrio alginolyticus) gained access to the subcutis and body cavity through the surgical incisions and then spread to the local lymph nodes and beyond, resulting in septicemia and death.”

Whether these are the same permits or whether there are two permits or a renewed permit which now includes ensonification of sea otters for the PG&E HESS is unclear. Nor is it clear if this is the permit referred to in the April 7, 2008 notice and if so, how tagging studies, aerial surveys and implanted recorders will produce relevant evidence on the ecology of the species. Evidence that has already been obtained in prior studies. Without notices for public comment in the Federal Register and any indication of the purpose of implanting a “small” number of sea otters in 2008, it’s anyone’s guess.

Moving on to the PG&E HESS, the following information is important.

According to the Federal Register Notice of 9/26/12,“due to the lack of data on the effects of air guns on sea otters, in addition to project-related mitigation monitoring, the Service has recommended that PG&E and LDEO use the survey as an opportunity to investigate the potential effects of air guns on sea otters.”

An extraordinary act by an Agency charged with mandatory responsibility for protecting listed animals from harm.

Federal Notices published a Proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization by Fish & Wildlife Service to take by harassment, “small numbers” of southern sea otters for a period of 2.5 months beginning on October l5, 2012 and ending December 31, 2012.

For a small take analysis, the statute and legislative history do not expressly require a specific type of numerical analysis, leaving the determination of “small” to the agency’s discretion. Factors considered in our small numbers determination include the following:

(1) The number of southern sea otters inhabiting the proposed impact area is small relative to the size of the southern sea otter population. The number of southern sea otters that could potentially be taken by harassment in association with the proposed activity is 352, less than 13 per cent of the estimated population size of 2,792.

It’s extremely doubtful any independent scientist would regard 13% of a population as a “small number”. At the same time, in identifying 13% as a “small number” a very concerning precedent is created making a mockery of the definition of “small”. The recommendation by the MMC to limit the take to the minimal number of animals is ignored.

Under the heading of “Monitoring of potential impacts on sea otters of Seismic Surveys, Diablo Canyon,” the following statement is made by Dr. Tinker:

A proposal by US Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center and California Department of Fish & Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response Principal Investigator Dr M.T. Tinker, Supervisory Research Biologist, USGS.

Background: The coastal regions to the north and south of Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) provide vital habitat for a relatively large proportion (~23%) of the threatened southern sea otter population. The proposed High Energy Seismic Survey (HESS) in the vicinity of DCPP, represents a potentially significant disturbance to certain marine wildlife species in the area. However, to-date there is a paucity of information as to the sensitivity of sea otters to acoustic disturbances of this nature, and thus little basis for estimating the magnitude of the impacts on individual sea otter behaviour and/or population level vital rates.

We propose to address this information gap by using the proposed seismic surveys as a natural experiment, measuring behavioural and demographic responses (if any) to the acoustic disturbance vent. The proposed work would provide a real-time monitoring infrastructure with which to detect and measure levels of harassment caused by the surveys, as required by US Fish and Wildlife Service, while at the same time providing useful information on behavioural response thresholds as a function of sound exposure for sea otters.

We will target both resident females and territorial males in kelp-dominated habitat as well as animals found in the open water areas of Estero Bay. Initial capture operations will begin on October 1, 2012 and conclude on or before October 20, 2012. If required, additional captures will be conducted in early summer 2013 to achieve desired sample sizes for the second year of seismic surveys.
Dr. Tinker then lists at length the extent of health parameters which will be measured and asserts that the flipper tags, VHF transmitter and Time Depth Recorders (TDRs) are all activities covered by an existing federal permit and institutional animal care and use (IACUC) permit issued to the principal investigator.

All very reassuring except that there is no reference to any permit number nor a copy of the existing federal permit. Nor is it available on request. The only way to access this permit is by a Freedom of Information application. A lawyer from the Center for Biological Diversity has indicated that having to appeal for a permit under a FOIA is “very unusual”; however an Agency has the right to make information difficult to access. Nor is there any proper reference to or copy of an IACUC permit issued to the principal investigator. The public, presumably, should be satisfied with his word.

The public has a right to know whether any Institution set up to ensure proper care of animals subjected to experiments has properly considered the impacts. Has this Institution adequately addressed the impacts of stress––on communication, on prey, on reproduction? Exactly what are the terms of reference of any IACUC permit?

The Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) on its website has the following information:

“To learn more about the ecology of the southern sea otter, scientists have implanted VHF radio transmitters and time-depth recorders (TDRs) in sea otters at multiple sites throughout their range. These radio-tagged otters are then followed closely by field workers for up to 5 years to monitor their survival, reproductive success, behaviour and vital signs as they dive and forage for food.

“This research has also highlighted the extreme degree of individual dietary specialization in the southern sea otter, and the significance of such specialisation for individual fitness and population dynamics. In addition, detailed health profiles are being developed for the radio-tagged study animals and beached carcasses are being examined and tissues analysed in an effort to determine important causes of death in sea otters.”

Another question. Under what permit? Is this the permit Dr. Tinker refers to as allowing the seismic studies? If not, then isn’t the permit which Dr. Tinker refers to as giving authority for the seismic testing a repeat of a study which is already underway in terms of establishing the otters’ ecology and health issues?

How many animals are allowed to be taken under the WERC experiment outlined in the previous paragraphs?

At this stage, without knowledge of the numbers included in the WERC experiment, the Service had authorized permits for a take of 1,202 sea otters.

Indeed, one of the questions that arises is whether these permits actually spelt out consent to and proper assessment of an experiment which exposed 40 sea otters to continuous underwater noise exposure at high frequency levels for two and a half months night and day?

Another question. Why has the Federal permit application, for an arguably very controversial experiment, not been made public? Can Dr. Tinker advise the date of any Federal Register Notice with an application for a permit to ensonify 40-60 southern sea otters for a period of over two months other than the IHA notice?

The IHA document also indicates that captured animals would be tracked through September 30, 2015. Dr. Tinker acknowledges that beginning in winter/spring 2014, after completion of the second set of seismic surveys, “attempts will be made to re-capture all study animals in order to retrieve TDR bio-logging instruments.” Methods for re-captures are essentially identical to those of the initial captures. Recaptured otters will be anesthetized and archival TDR instruments surgically explanted for data extraction.

But wait. The California Coastal Commission denied PG&E a permit to conduct HESS on the Central Coast. So what happens to the 40 implanted sea otters?

Next questions. What are the legalities of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ignoring the impending decision of the Coastal Commission? How is the ensonifying experiment allowed to proceed when there is no Coastal Commission consent to any permit and no HESS? What is now the purpose of the experiment?

Hang on a minute. Weren’t there similar experiments between l998 and 2004? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper[2] indicating sea otters were captured, anesthetized and surgically implanted with VHF transmitters and archival time-depth recorders between l998 and 2004 using previously established methods. According to the paper, the take was for 118 animals.

Whoops! There were two more permits for takes in the last four years. On July 25, 2008, the Service issued two permits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to renew and amend a permit to increase from 50 to 100 the maximum number of southern sea otters that may be taken annually; authorize the conduct of rehabilitation and related activities under an enhancement permit; and authorize scientific research on live-stranded, captive-held, or released southern sea otters.

One permit authorized the rescue, rehabilitation and release of stranded otters and other authorized scientific research on the subject animals.

So we have another 400 otters to add to the number of takes, giving an overall take figure of 1,602 otters. More than half the population of 2,760 animals, give or take a few stranded otters. Exactly what kind of scientific research is Monterey Bay Aquarium carrying out on these animals?

That makes 1,720 the total number of implanted sea otters since l998––as far as we know.

On January 15, 2009 Representative Sam Farr of California and co-sponsors introduced a bill, H.R. 556, in the U.S. House of Representatives to promote the protection and recovery of southern sea otters. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which held a public hearing on its provisions in the spring of 2009. Based on results of the hearing, the bill was revised, approved by the full House of Representatives, and forwarded to the Senate for its consideration where it died.

Interestingly, Representative Lois Capps was one of the co-sponsors of the bill. Given her recent statements of support for the PG&E HESS, the shifting electoral stands or sands of our politicians are curious.

The summary of the bill below was written by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress. It is important to note that the bill does not include any suggestion of using sea otters as experimental animals for high-energy seismic surveys and that the emphasis is on protection, mitigation of potential impacts and the causes of mortality.


Section 2 –

Requires the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), to carry out a Recovery and Research Program for southern sea otter populations along the coast of California that includes:

(1) monitoring, analysis, and assessment of population demographics, health, mortality, and life history parameters; and

(2) implementation of measures to reduce or eliminate potential factors limiting populations that are related to marine ecosystem health or human activities.

Requires the Secretary to:

(1) appoint persons to a southern sea otter recovery implementation team as authorized under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 within a year;

(2) establish a peer-reviewed, merit-based process to award competitive grants for research regarding such otters and for projects assisting the recovery of otter populations; and

(3) establish a peer review panel to provide scientific advice and guidance to prioritize proposals for grants.

Authorizes research grant topics to include:

(1) causes of sea otter mortality;

(2) southern sea otter demographics and natural history;

(3) effects and sources of pollutants, nutrients, and toxicants on such otters and sequestration of contaminants;

(4) effects and sources of infectious diseases and parasites affecting such otters;

(5) limitations on the availability of food resources for such otters and the impacts of food limitation on southern sea otter carrying capacity;

(6) interactions between southern sea otters and coastal fisheries and other human activities in the marine environment;

(7) assessment of the keystone ecological role of sea otters in southern and central California’s coastal marine ecosystems; and

(8) assessment of the adequacy of emergency response and contingency plans.

Authorizes funded recovery projects to include projects to:

(1) protect and recover southern sea otters;

(2) reduce, mitigate, or eliminate potential factors limiting southern sea otter populations that are related to human activities; and

(3) implement emergency response and contingency plans.

Requires the Secretary, within 12 months, to report to Congress on:

(1) the status of southern sea otter populations;

(2) implementation of the research and grant programs; and

(3) endangered species consultations regarding southern sea otters.

Requires the Secretary, within 24 months and every five years thereafter, to report to Congress and the public on:

(1) an evaluation of southern sea otter health, causes of southern sea otter mortality, and the interactions of southern sea otters with California’s coastal marine ecosystems;

(2) an evaluation of actions taken to improve otter health, reduce mortality, and improve southern sea otter habitat;

(3) recommendation for actions to improve otter health, reduce the occurrence of human-related mortality, and improve the health of such coastal marine ecosystems; and

(4) recommendations for funding to implement this Act.

Finally, an important management tool for any species protected under the ESA or the Marine Mammal Protection Act is known as the Potential Biological Removal (PBR). In lay language, this is the allowable “quota” for anthropogenic mortality.

In the case of the southern sea otters, the PBR level is eight animals. Given that, according to the Friends of the Otter, 50% of sea otters who die are never recovered, and at least two dead otters have been confirmed, the potential for serious long-term impacts on the population cannot be ignored.

Back in the bad old days, the Russians nearly wiped out the otters.

Now it looks like a down-home show.

How many implanted otters are out there? How many have died? What are the long-term impacts on these gentle creatures hauled out of the water and subjected to surgery, implants and anesthesia?

An investigation into the use of endangered species for highly invasive experiments should be undertaken as a matter of urgency for the State and Federal Agencies involved. In the end, it’s the Endangered Species Act at stake.

[1] Federal Register 18808 Vol.73, No. 67, Monday, April 7, 2008 Notices
[2] Prey choice and habitat use drive sea otter pathogen exposure in a resource limited coastal system. Christine K. Johnson, Martin T. Tinker et al, January 21, 2009