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Why It's Harder Than You'd Think to Serve Local Seafood in California

Mitch Conniff's commitment to serving local seafood means that he sometimes pays twice as much as his competitors for the same fish species. "But it’s worth it," he says.

In a nation where 90 percent of the seafood consumed is imported from foreign countries, Mitch's Seafood in San Diego is rarity. The menu is mostly made up of a fish from local fishermen and, with the exception of clams and mussels, everything is wild-caught.

"We get as much from Southern California as we can; and then being right here on the border and having a personal experience with Baja California, I consider [fish from there] local, too," Mitch Conniff, the owner, says.

On an October evening, the menu might feature big eye tuna, calamari, halibut, swordfish, and cabrilla from San Diego. Conniff usually sources from half a dozen fishermen in San Diego, many of whom are his close friends and relatives. White shrimp comes from Mazatlan in Mexico and gold spot bass hails from San Carlos in California. Spiny lobster caught in California—95 percent of which is typically exported to China—is on the menu as well.

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Inside Mitch's Seafood. All photos by the author.

It's a diverse catch that is surprisingly affordable, considering how the prices of certain species of local California seafood have been made insanely expensive because of Chinese demand.

Last year, the California spiny lobster retailed close to $30 a pound. That is an astronomical figure compared to the retail price of Maine lobster, which was around $9 a pound for wholesale. Maine lobster accounts for 90 percent of the United States lobster market.

Conniff also faces price competition from Chinese restaurants and grocery stores in California who prioritize live fish. Certain fish species, like the sheephead, go immediately to the wet markets. His strategy: buy the cut of fish and crustacean that isn't fit for the Chinese market and the export crowd. It's a much cheaper selection and quality is not compromised.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with [what I buy]. It died half an hour ago," he says. "You literally can't get any more fresh."

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Calamari at Mitch's.

The calamari at Mitch's is also caught and processed in California—a situation that took Conniff years to find.

"Half the calamari in the world is caught here in California sometimes, but you cannot find it here locally," Conniff says. "It all gets caught here, sent to China, processed and brought back. Squid that's caught two to three miles away takes a 10,000-mile roundtrip journey before I can get it back into my restaurant." According to the website Follow Your Fish, the United States imports an average of about 370,000 pounds of California market squid every year; that's only about 1 percent of what the US exports.

Conniff spent three years looking for a California-based processor, eventually finding one in the Los Angeles Harbor. "We have to pay twice as much for it, but it's worth it so that we can say we offer California-caught and processed squid," he says.

The commitment to buying local is tough, but Conniff is adamant on keeping to it. It's the responsible way to do food, he stresses, and it was inspired by a lifetime of sport-fishing and nearly a decade spent working on fishing boats.

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Mitch Conniff.

"When you're working on a boat, you have all the fish that you want so it's not something you think about. Coming back to the restaurant world, I started to ask a lot of questions about where the fish is coming from and if it's sustainable," he says.

In this day and age, sustainability is a loaded word. It's a term entirely up for interpretation but for Conniff, it also embodies whether or not the fishermen are making a living from their catch.

"For me, a big part of the equation is also whether or not the product and the method of fishing is sustainable for the people making a living doing it," he says.

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Big-eye tuna.

For a number of reasons, including increased fishery regulations, the number of fishermen in California has precipitately declined over the years. In 1981, the number of boats registered in California was at a high of 8,427 vessels. In 2011, that number was 2,818.

"You're not going to take away somebody's appetite for a certain species of fish by declaring an area off-limits to fishing," he says. "All you're going to do is require that you put more pressure on a different area, or you import that fish.

In the Channel Islands, however, scientists have found that marine reserves have helped increase fished species outside the reserves. Conniff argues, though, that foreign fishermen get the upper hand on the catch.

"On every border of California there are giant fishing vessels from all over the world. They're not fishing in the United States but the fish don't know the boundaries. You still have the appetite for the fish and you have these types of countries that don't respect the idea of sustainability right at our doorstep taking the fish," he says.

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The patio at Mitch's.

Lack of consumer awareness is another factor. "The American seafood diet is salmon, tuna, mahi mahi, and some shellfish," Conniff says. "So we end up importing stuff from other countries that's either frozen or caught in unsustainable fisheries halfway around the world just so a restaurant can always have salmon on its menu."

On his part, Conniff is adamant on educating his customers on the fish in California waters. His seafood is cooked and processed in approachable ways—in tacos, in sandwiches, or grilled with a squeeze of lemon on the side. Figuratively and literally, his restaurant is as close to the sea as one can get. It's perched on the docks, right above the occasional barking sea lion and a bevy of fishing boats owned by his buddies.

"Our whole idea when we opened up this place is to provide seafood for fishermen," he says. "We're not doing anything too fancy down here. We just want to provide what I consider some of the best seafood in the world at a price people can afford."