Report: Morro Bay Fishing Industry on the Upswing

Predicting how good the fishing will be in Morro Bay next year—amid shifting markets, changing ocean and ongoing regulatory constraints—is tricky business. However, even if the October report on state of the industry, “Morro Bay Commercial Fisheries 2014 Economic Impact Report,” covering the 2013 calendar year, is a fair-weather snapshot of current trends, Morro Bay fishing is in for some good economic times ahead.

By ED OCHS

Predicting how good the fishing will be in Morro Bay next year—amid shifting markets, changing ocean and ongoing regulatory constraints—is tricky business.

However, even if the October report on state of the industry, “Morro Bay Commercial Fisheries 2014 Economic Impact Report,” covering the 2013 calendar year, is a fair-weather snapshot of current trends, Morro Bay fishing is in for some good economic times ahead.

“In 2013, the commercial fishing industry in Morro Bay continued a powerful trend in increased earnings and landings from a 20-year low in 2007, states the report. “In the last seven years, earnings have increased over 350% and landings have risen more than seven and a half fold.”

“That the earnings are spread across a broad range of fishery types, aimed at differing habitats using different gear, is another indicator of sustainability,” according to the April 2104 companion report, “City of Morro Bay Fishing Community Sustainability Plan.” “Fishermen in Morro Bay target Spot prawn, Pacific hagfish and sablefish with traps, groundfish with hook and line and trawl, squid with purse seine nets, swordfish with drift gillnets, and salmon by surface troll.”

The 2014 editions of the “Economic Impact Report” and “Sustainability Plan” were prepared by San Luis Obispo-based Lisa Wise Consulting Inc., in partnership with the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization (MBCFO) and funded by the Central Coast Joint Cable/Fisheries Liaison Committee.

Morro Bay’s steady climb in fishing earnings was part of a statewide trend, the report notes. Commercial fishing earnings in the state nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013, and, significantly, at the same time, this growth overlapped the recent recession/depression, which bottomed in 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In other words, Morro Bay fishing suffered the same downtown as did practically every business in the U.S. at that time, and is now in full recovery.

Leading economic indicators place the commercial industry in Morro Bay at near-record highs. Landings by weight—the amount of seafood offloaded at the dock—reached almost 6.8 million pounds in 2013, a 33% increase from 2012, and the highest landings by weight since 1993. Earnings at the dock exceeded $7.1 million in 2013, a 9.3% increase from 2012, marking the third year of dock earnings over $6.5 million, and a 275% increase from the 20-year low in 2007.

According to the report, sablefish, Dungeness crab, hagfish, salmon, Market squid and halibut accounted for approximately 80% of the top-10 earning species in 2013. Shortspine thornyheads, Spot prawn, Petrale sole, Dover sole and Gopher rockfish made up the remaining 20% of the top 10 for a total of $6.25 million.

A top-15 port and statewide leader, Morro Bay led California in 2013 in hagfish with 42% of the state total; Aurora rockfish with 58% of state total; Bank rockfish with 68% of state total; and sablefish with 25% of state total.

Falling Price Per Pound

While earnings increased 9.3% and landings 33% from 2012 to 2013, the “Economic Report” notes, “Price per pound has fallen sharply, reflecting Morro Bay’s increasing participation in the Market squid fishery. Price per pound for Market squid in Morro Bay averaged $0.33 per pound in 2013. Morro Bay’s overall average price per pound in 2013 was $1.05, down from $1.27 in 2012.”

By comparison, species much more valuable than Market squid also hit the docks, though in far less volume. For example, the still-strong sablefish fishery (27% of overall dock earnings in 2013) averaged around $2.50 per pound in 2013. Dungeness crab (17% of earnings) registered its highest total in 24 years, nearly doubling 2012 when it averaged upwards of $5.04 per pound. White seabass averaged an all-time high of $4.62 per pound in 2012 (2013 figures unavailable). Chinook salmon (5%), long a key fishery in Morro Bay, averaged $7.54 per pound last year. In 2013, Nearshore species, including Cabezon, Gopher rockfish, Grass rockfish, Brown rockfish, Black and Yellow rockfish, Kelp greenling and Copper rockfish, fetched about $6.79 per pound. California halibut averaged $6.53 per pound. Spot prawn averaged around $13.31 per proud in 2013, making it the most valuable species to hit the dock.

The “Economic Report” commends fishermen’s “ability to adapt” to shifting markets and seize new and emerging opportunities. “Maintaining the upward momentum,” it states, “commercial fishermen met drops in key fisheries such as sablefish with increased landings and earnings of salmon, Market squid and Dungeness crab.”

Fishermen’s Reaction

“The Morro Bay fishing community is doing very well,” says Jeremiah O’Brien, former president and present director of the MBCFO. “Most of the guys are doing well financially because the fish stocks are there. As we see improvements in the landings, as we see improvements in the opportunities, and we see younger guys coming into the business.

“I’m very optimistic about the future,” O’Brien says. “What’s happening now is that the fish stocks are catching up with management efforts. The management has been very heavy for the last 25 years, and what we’re seeing now, finally, is an upswing in all of the fish stocks right across the board, because some of the efforts were necessary, some were not…”

“I don’t see anything currently that would impede the direction the growth has been traveling,” he says about room for future growth. “It’s steadily moving up the (earnings) chart very nicely. I don’t see anything currently that would impede those numbers. At some point, there more than likely would be a leveling off, and I don’t know when that would come.”

What complicates that picture is the Rock Conservation Area stretching from Canada to Mexico that is currently closed. “That area, between 30 and 150 fathoms, is the primary spawning area for all of the Rockcod on the West Coast,” he says. “It’s been closed since 1999. It’s going to have to open one day soon, and there’s already been rumblings and little tests. In fact, some tests were done here locally. When it does open I believe we’re going to see all of those numbers on the (landings and earnings) charts go up considerably.”

O’Brien feels optimistic about the future of the business.

“The markets look good. I believe we’re going to remain healthy for a long time to come,” he says, especially since the local fishing community has always enjoyed the strong support of the community at large, from the Harbor Department to the city councils. The coming and goings of the fishing boats are an integral part of the rhythm of daily life in Morro Bay.

“We need to ensure (the younger fishermen) are going to make a good living and that there’s opportunity in the future,” O’Brien says. “Management is keeping up with the industry and the stocks are looking healthy… as long as management keeps their eye on things and manages properly. We’ve got to make sure that we have fish for the future while ensuring that we are utilizing the stocks available to us properly now. It’s a fine line.”

Mark Tognazinni, a MBCFO director and business owner, says that while “we have had some great successes, all isn’t a glowing bed of coals in Morro Bay fisheries.”

He questions the largely squid-based economy.

“Let’s do the math,” he says. “6.8 million pounds (in landings), but remember 4 million pounds were squid… All out of town boats, less than five or six boats, mostly ran by non-owners selling to out of town markets, and most all that is consumed ends up leaving the U.S. to be processed. Other than the dock and dock workers who unload the squid there is very little economic gain for Morro Bay. The harbor loves it because it artificially inflates our landings and that keeps tax dollars flowing to the harbor. Squid production does little for Morro Bay other than disrupt other fisheries.

“So, in a year we have no squid landings, and there are more of those than not, do we say the landings have collapsed?”

“Fishermen have it better than we did five years ago,” Tognazinni says, “(but) certain doors are closed behind us as far as limited entry and limited access, (and) lots of active fishermen have manipulated the system and have become owners of very valuable permits for free.

“Morro bay fishermen really don’t need help,” he adds, “but we need to have organizations stop hurting us. Give us reasonable access to resources. Allow fishermen, real fishermen to have access without paying $100,000 of dollars to fish. Get rid of limited entry, individual quotas, and anything else that allows large corporations to own fish that should belong to all of us.”

Key indicators point to a similarly prosperous 2014. Landings and earnings at the dock, species mix and trends, price per pound, number of trips and vessels operating in the harbor; demand for offloading, staging, refrigeration/ice, processing, bait, gear storage, a chandlery and other marine services; as well as for retail space, employment generation, and synergies with tourism and other related businesses—all point to the local industry’s overall good health. Morro Bay is expected to build a boatyard/haul-out facility within the next few years, and that should further stimulate new economic activity at the docks, new taxes revenues, and more dollars spent in town.

And the new faces: “In the last three years [ending in 2012],” states the “Sustainability Plan,” “it is estimated that 12 new participants have entered the commercial fishing industry in Morro Bay, attracted by five years of steady economic growth and increased earnings.” Even more have entered the business in the last two years.

The “Economic Impact Report” “is a tool to give a very small snapshot of a blink of an eye in time,” Tognazinni counsels. “Fisheries are cyclic just like farming and other food producing businesses.

“Ride the highs and prepare for the lows.”

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Marketing Ace Karin Moss Finds Fertile Ground for Success in Morro Bay

Talkin’ Morro Bay, marketing, tourism and the road ahead with former TBID executive director, veteran special events promoter and dealmaker, Karin Moss.

Karin Moss
Karin Moss knows how to laugh.

Karin Moss has lived in California for the past 35 years, but she had never been to Morro Bay before she interviewed and was hired as Executive Director of the Morro Bay Tourism Bureau in late 2012.

Before taking the job and moving to Morro Bay, she had been the National Director of Promotion for Indian Motorcycle in Gilroy when they abruptly went bankrupt. The new owners recruited her to “a little one-horse town” outside of Charlotte. Within a year they sold the company on the verge of bankruptcy, and Moss had to shift gears. Fortunately for her, she’s good at that.

“I became the director of tourism for 10 counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she said, “but I always wanted to come back to California.”

From across the country she was looking at various industry job sites when she saw the Morro Bay listing on the Western Association of Convention & Visitor Bureaus site out of Sacramento.

“I knew where it was located, but until I came for the interview, I was Googling and MapQuesting,” she confessed. “I had never really been to Morro Bay before the initial interview.

“I’ve had a really big, lengthy career,” Moss said. “I thought this would be a great place to be, and that was really the motivation for me. I’ve done the big-city thing, I’ve done L.A., Chicago, New York, San Francisco. My idea of really living well is to do urban business in a rural setting, and that’s really what I was signing up for.”

Opening the new Visitors Center

Moss was hired in November 2012 and relocated to Morro Bay, courtesy of the city. It was an amazing return to California for Moss. It demonstrated her skill and her will. But the reality was she was starting with nothing and had to hit the tarmac running.

“I flew into town and started the job the first week of December 2012, and put together the whole Visitors Center.

“I think they were looking for someone that had experience with start-ups, and I had a lot of experience with start-ups,” she said. “What you would be looking for in a start-up executive director and what you would be looking for in an executive director several years later are two different things,” she said, paving the way for what would follow.

It’s hardly unusual to find out what a new job is really like only after being hired, never before. What Moss didn’t know before she was hired was that she had parachuted into a turf war between the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau over the Visitors Center, and TBID won. Enter Moss to a chill in the air and a lot of money at stake.

“Some were not wanting to support this new woman from the Blue Ridge,” she laughed, “so it was really great to meet people and get them to roll up their sleeves and help me get that thing open.

She was tasked with having the Visitors Center open by January 2,2013. She had to move everything out of the former Chamber office, furnish the new place, get internet and phones going, hire the people—and she rolled it out by January 2nd. “I think that’s why they needed a seasoned executive director, to get it done, somebody who wouldn’t have to think twice about it,” she said.

Right from the beginning Moss took the marketing in-house, eliminating a countywide ad agency, associated retainers and mark-up charges.

“That was what I was tasked to do, which was market Morro Bay tourism. So I took everything in-house.  It was an excellent decision, absolutely. It was a money-saving decision, and it enabled us to turn on a dime. There were no mark-up charges. I did advertising, promotion, social media, publicity, media relations, public relations.”

Moss left the job in early April, a new executive director has since been hired, and Moss admits feeling some sense of relief stepping away from the high-visibility, labor-intensive position.

At the same time she was leaving, it was announced that Morro Bay tourism was up 33%. More visitors were staying overnight in Morro Bay’s hotels and motels.

“I delivered the end product,” Moss said. “I don’t think anyone would deny that. But I’m a very independent person. I like to work when I want to work, I like to have lots of different clients, I like to volunteer, I like to travel.

“What they needed in the first place to jump-start this organization and what they need now are two different things, so it really has nothing to do with me or where they’re going in the future.

“I was very satisfied with my delivery on that job. I’ve met a lot of people I really like. I’ve developed some collaboration in the community and overcame a lot of the negativity over the separation of the Visitors Center from the Chamber. I worked closely with the Chamber, I was part of their committees, I helped them market events in a very positive way. So it was a good marriage. But I’ve had a big career and I want to continue having a big career.”

The numbers suggest Moss, TBID and the city did something right in 2013, and before. “A lot of people have been planting seeds for a long time, and a lot of money’s been spent,” she said. “It’s not like a non-profit organization where we’re standing on the street handing out fliers. We’ve bought a lot of media, we’ve had some great agencies, some great creative. They had the local promotions committee here. A lot has been done over the last five years, so yes it’s convenient for me that as I’m leaving the numbers are looking good, and I do take some of the credit, but I certainly can’t take all of the credit.”

Moss was still saying “we” almost two weeks after exiting TBID, which is understandable. Marketing Morro Bay was, still is and will continue to be fresh on her mind.

Why Morro Bay?

“There’s so many ways to market Morro Bay. You can’t just look at tourism marketing,” she said. “Everything is everything: you have look at what’s happening with the merchants, how clean is the community, what’s happening with the restaurants. Just because you slept on a $1,500 mattress, if you have a bad breakfast, or there’s garbage on the street, or bad customer service, your entire experience was not a good experience. I like to view marketing globally.

“In my career I’ve been a single woman on the road a lot. I would even go to places that weren’t that great if they treated me well, if I knew they had a clean bathroom, if the grilled cheese sandwich was served by a nice lady.

“In the case of Morro Bay we’re marketing a lot of different demographics, but fortunately we have substantial enough budget that we can reach those people.”

Though Moss isn’t directing the show anymore, she’s still very much in the game.

“I’ll always be promoting Morro Bay,” she said. “We all are, aren’t we?”

One of the last things she did with the Bureau was run a big promotion in the Central Valley where she gave away an all-expense-paid weekend in Morro Bay.

“People went crazy over getting a weekend trip in Morro Bay. I literally spoke to a thousand people; not one single person had a negative thing to say about Morro Bay. Usually you’ve got to listen to the bad dinner, the bad whatever, the horrible sheets, but everybody had a good feeling about it.

“But the call to action, the unique selling proposition: Why Morro Bay… Why not Pismo, why not Cayucos? There’s a lot of different options. But more than anything I’ve learned that it’s not Disneyland, it’s not for everyone.”

Spoiler alert for the jet set:

“If you want five-star dining and room service, this isn’t it,” Moss said. “If you want come to as you are, walk in the door of any restaurant, this is it. No reservations needed. Wear what you slept in. Whatever. That’s the plus of it.”

Moss also believes in truth in advertising, being realistic and thinking holistic.

“Let’s talk about the Morro Bay experience, everything about it: parking, cleanliness, customer service, food, all of it. I listened to someone at a city council meeting the other day and he said, ‘Why do you have all this crap on the street. Are you having a yard sale every weekend?’ And I thought, you know, he’s making a very good point. If you just come here for the first time, is that your initial feeling about the community?

“We need to be aware of all of that. Signs for events after the event that are still hanging on the side of the fence… all of it. We kind of take it for granted.”

Drawing New People

While Moss is happy as a clam she landed by the ocean in Morro Bay, she remains somewhat surprised and perplexed it took so long to find her way. After all, Moss, an avid reader and traveler, has lived in California, both Northern and Southern, for a long time, and yet, she said, “I had never been to Morro Bay, and I didn’t know how to get here, or why should I come here.

“So I’m somebody who doesn’t take anything for granted. Let’s go to square number one: Why do I not know about Morro Bay?

“We haven’t done a good enough job of placing it in people’s mentality as an option. I found a lot of people had a very sentimental journey about Morro Bay. They came here for family reunions, someone in their family got married here. When I did a promotion in the Central Valley, many people said, ‘oh that’s our romantic getaway.’ So they have a good feeling about it, but as far as drawing new people here, does it pass the ‘so what’ test?

“That’s my biggest question: Why here?”

Moss recalled a conversation she had with a couple who came into the Visitors Center on New Year’s Eve. “They said they were here in Morro Bay for the evening, and I said, ‘oh, what made you spend the evening in Morro Bay?’ And they said, ‘because we don’t want to party, we don’t want the nightlife, we want a quiet, pleasant evening.’ Makes perfect sense.”

Moss talks about “the theater of the mind… What imagery is conjured up when you say Morro Bay?”

“I don’t think we’ve made our case well enough,” she said. “While I think the Rock is an interesting backdrop, I don’t think that’s the selling point. People come here, they may take a spin around it, get some fish and chips to go. There’s so much more. If I were king, if I could write those big checks, I’d be marketing Morro Bay as ‘come as you are’. That’s been my experience here.

“There’s some great little merchants here, I’ve had some great dining experiences, but I’ve learned what’s available to me. When you say Santa Cruz people know what they’re going to experience. Monterey, they know. I don’t think they know Cayucos. That was a big surprise to me, but that’s had a lot of press recently in Sunset magazine. It was selected as one of the greatest little beach towns. So now you know it’s going to be inundated.”

Moss believes Morro Bay needs to better answer the simple question, “What’s unique about Morro Bay?” And, to compete, the message has to be compelling enough to draw new people.

“Forget the people that came here in the ’50s and ’60s. If you’re coming here today, what are you going to get? It’s not just the economy. People want more for the money. They want to supersize their vacation. They don’t to make any mistakes. That’s why so many of these reservations are made online; they’re reading TripAdvisor.”

Moss believes that the number of big-draw events in Morro Bay could be improved “radically.”

”For the consumer all the information they need is online. But we need some galvanizing things to get some new people to town. Some of the existing events could be better events, and we should develop some new ones, some unique niche-marketing type of things” Moss said. “That’s where it’s at for us.”

Moss Marketing

Moss has had her own marketing company on and off for years. First it was In Any Event, which was specifically event oriented; then Moss Marketing, which branched out with non-profits, grant writing and fundraising; and now Moss Marketing Group. “Because, through my association with Morro Bay,” she said, “I’ve connected with some really talented freelancers, and those freelancers are now part of my team. So you can hire me or you can hire a social media person, a photographer, a graphics person. I bill myself as one-stop shopping. I’ve been so impressed by the level of expertise that I’ve met here.”

With Morro Bay as her base of operations, Moss is scouting regional clients, and having worked in the Central Valley before, she also hopes to pick up clients there. She is enthused about the people she’s talking to and the projects she’s working on, and convinced she can market clients regionally, statewide, nationally and globally from Morro Bay.

Moss has that inherent ability to take care of business and make things happen wherever she is, and it seems to come naturally to her.

Born in Chicago into an entertainment business family, Moss forged her promotion/marketing chops in the upstart L.A. music business of the ’60s and ’70s when she worked directly with some of the legendary executives, producers and artists that created and shaped classic rock music, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Eagles, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, and industry titans Ahmet Ertegun, David Geffen and Jerry Wexler.

“I got in the business, I was maybe 21 years old,” she explained. “There were only two questions: Is the album on the charts? Did the concert sell out? That’s it. Nothing else mattered. What you wore to the office, what you said to the boss, what your hair looked like; it didn’t matter if you even came in at 9 o’clock in the morning. If you delivered, that was it. I like that.

“Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than sitting around with a group of people after an event that was a bomb and they blew a lot of money and say, ‘but it was great for a feel-good event, it was good for community relations.’ That’s not good enough to me. I like the bottom line.”

Moss’s experience, professionalism, and many successes for an impressive array of clients from rock stars to racetracks, governors to the Dale Earnhardt Foundation have established her as a fearless creative executive who is well versed in the art of the deal.

New Horizons

Moss sees a bright future for Morro Bay. “There’s change on the horizon. I think people see the need for change. It’s people recognizing it and rolling up their sleeves. I’m impressed with things like Morro Bay in Bloom and Morro Bay Beautiful, citizen groups, the Merchants Association, the Tourism Bureau, they’re all trying to do something positive.

“The hardest thing for Morro Bay is everybody is not on the same page. Getting the town on the same page is difficult. If we’re talking about tourism; there are a lot of different types of properties. So the concern of a hotelier in North Morro Bay is not going to be the same thing with the more upscale hotel right in the heart of town.”

Of course, while there will always be different points of view, pulling the town together wouldn’t be such a bad thing, either. It’s a possibility, Moss believes.

“The bottom line is all the same, isn’t it? It’s pretty simple. We want people to come here, we want them to like the town, spend their money; we want them to have a good experience. But we have to recognize that people coming here are not necessarily having a good experience.

“They may have had a good hotel stay, but they may not have had a clean street. They may not have found the merchandise they were seeking. They may not have found the menu they’re seeking. But that’s true everywhere.  It’s not that it’s only in Morro Bay. Every hospitality organization has these same problems. Working more closely with regional entities, where they can combine those dollars and have greater spending will be a good thing.

“I read these articles about the livability of San Luis Obispo, and it is. We have to take the enthusiasm we have for the community and let other people know it in a way that’s believable, that has a brand promise. We’re not the greatest coastal city in the United States. We have our own quirkiness.

“I like the quirkiness of it,” Moss said. “It’s not for everybody, but for those that want this kind of laid-back experience you can’t do any better.”