Give a fisherman a loan, revive our oceans for a lifetime

A small business owner in a backbreaking industry, commercial fisherman Brett Cunningham has helped turn a dying fishery around. What's more, his California coastal town is becoming known nationally for its thriving sustainable fishing industry.

The success of Morro Bay comes just a decade after its fishing industry collapsed in the early 2000s. It shows what a difference an innovative loan program such as ours can make for individual fishermen, their local community — and the environment.

I met Brett my very first day with the California Fisheries Fund in 2008. He shared his story and spoke frankly about the challenges and rewards of building and maintaining a sustainable seafood business.

"Without that credit line, I absolutely could not have done it," Brett said of the support CFF offered his business, Morro Bay Fish Company. "It was a tremendous relief and a lot of stress off my back knowing that I had a stable source of cash flow."

Traditional banks said no

Mainstream financial institutions — banks and credit unions — long have been reluctant to extend loans to commercial fishermen because traditional fisheries management generated marginal profits and unpredictable results.

We saw things differently. Since launching our revolving loan fund in 2008, we've provided more than $2.7 million in loans to fishermen such as Brett, fish buyers, processors and distributors. It's allowed them to transition to, or continue, more sustainable fishing business practices.

Credit: California Fisheries FundEnvironmental Defense Fund initially developed the concept for the fund, and it since has been extended to fishermen and fishing businesses in Oregon and Washington. It's been a win-win for our borrowers and for the ocean.

The fund is evolving

Our most recent loan was to the Morro Bay Community Quota Fund, formed to help experienced fishermen retain access to fishing in Morro Bay and providing new opportunities to young local fishermen new to the industry.

The group developed after years of local planning and collaboration between fishermen, non-profit groups, the City of Morro Bay and academic institutions.

We provided the quota fund with a loan to purchase fishing permits and quota from the Nature Conservancy — a transaction that will guarantee local fishermen from Morro Bay long-term access to fishing.

The new quota fund will support fishermen such as Bill Blue, who borrowed from CFF in 2011 to buy a new vessel to replace his 100-year-old boat. He'll now be able to lease quota from the quota fund to continue his sustainable fishing business in Morro Bay.

This and other initiatives undertaken in recent years are paying off. Just recently, the Marine Stewardship Council certified 13 species to their standards for sustainable fishing, thanks to a sustainable management program EDF implemented on the West Coast in 2011 together with commercial fishermen and fishery managers.

Top image of Morro Bay by Fred Moore via Flickr. This article first appeared at EDF Voices and is reprinted with permission.