One reason wholesalers like Catalina Offshore Products are deeply engaged in bringing Baja fish across the border is the obvious one: We don't have a lot of those species available to us here. Scallops, groupers and snappers. They're just not in California waters, according to Catalina Offshore Products' founder Dave Rudie.
"Baja has a good volume of fresh fish and it's not just because there's such a long coastline," he said. "They're not fishing as much as Americans, given the opportunity. Culturally, they're more laid back. They work in tiny boats called pangas, get the catch, and by noon they're back and done for the day. That's one reason why the waters have more fish."
Another reason for the disparity and the need for San Diegans to do business with Baja fishermen has to do with our own fishing environment. U.S. regulations make it more difficult for American fishermen to bring in the catch they need to earn a living. Additionally, there are simply fewer fishermen out there—and they're getting old. As Catalina Offshore Products' fishmonger Tommy Gomes put it, "They're an endangered species."
So, with a limited amount of fish coming into California, it makes sense to Rudie to buy from Mexico. "It's a close supply and it's mostly sustainable," he said.
Rudie explained that Mexico also has very different fisheries management controls in place from the U.S. Until about 1983, foreign fleets—most notably from the U.S. and Japan—were allowed into Mexican waters. But in the 1980s, a 200-mile limit was imposed and has kept most foreign fleets out. Trawling for shrimp has continued to be a problem, but most fin fisheries are fished in small pangas so overfishing hasn't continued.
"Mexico is a little behind the U.S. in setting fisheries management controls, but they're catching up," said Rudie. "What they do is unique. Instead of simply setting limits, you'll find a variety of requirements. For instance, we buy from fishing cooperatives. They have to be permit holders, authorized by the government to create an invoice, or factura, for the fish. If you haven't got a permit, you can't sell the fish. This would include co-ops, corporations, individuals and ejidos—areas of communal land used for agriculture."
Additionally, more valuable species like lobster, abalone, shrimp and scallops are covered by government quotas.
But all of this in done in the context of integrated decision making between the government, the environmental NGOs (which in Mexico are working to form partnerships with fishermen), and fishing coops like the FEDECOOP. Today, FEDECOOP is a model of sustainable, small-scale fisheries management, and the program is meeting its biological, economic and social goals. Launched by the Mexican government in 1992, it comprises 13 area-based concessions that run along the remote west coast of Baja. Establishing fisheries controls has gotten much more buy-in because the government has brought in these additional voices to set policy.
With all this in mind, it makes it easier for the consumer to select seafood that comes from Baja without concerns about sustainability. These include familiar names like halibut, pompano, corvina, grouper, snapper and yellowtail (both wild and farmed).
Fishing is seasonal, so shoppers looking to source across the border should familiarize themselves with when various fish are actually available to avoid any concern over sourcing. For instance, while grouper and snapper are available year round, corvina is a spring fish and white sea bass are generally found in late spring into summer.
Shoppers should also open their palates to less common fish that Rudie and others are trying to develop into more popular options—like Pacific tilefish and rockfish. You'll sometimes find goldspot sea bass on chef Amy DiBiase's menu at Tidal. Kingklip, a fatty, flavorful fish popular in Europe and South Africa, sometimes is available, as well as black snook, palometa amarilla and a variety of jacks.
A stroll along the refrigerated cases at Catalina Offshore Products in March yielded half a dozen fresh Baja fisheries choices: ocean whitefish, also known as Pacific tilefish, yellowtail—both wild and farmed—Baja grouper, white sea bass, halibut and rockfish.
If shoppers need more help figuring out which Baja fisheries to support, there's a great resource called Seafood for the Future. The organization gives ratings when they have the information available (language and science availability can be an issue). The Aquarium of the Pacific's nonprofit seafood advisory program offers recommendations of specific stocks, branded products and local seafood to help shoppers make responsible choices. Catalina Offshore Products is one of their many partners, and if you look in the retail cases, you'll see signs that show if a particular variety is recommended by the organization.