by Ree Slocum
Unwittingly, Heather Sears began her fishing career when she was about ten years old, spending many summers with her father on the family boat out of Morro Bay. They were away from home, frequently for a month or more, packing everything they needed to be at sea for days and staying at different ports. Early on, she learned the ins and outs of the fishing business from one parent while developing carpentry skills from the other. Her mother, not liking fishing much, remained ashore buying fixer-upper houses to renovate and sell. The family depended on fishing for most of their income.
Their lives revolved around the seasons, maintaining the boat and managing their catch. Heather remembers talking with other fishing kids who all had the same experiences: “We’d sand and paint bin boards, load needles with twine, and mend nets.”—but nothing compared to the thrill of bringing in the big fish.
At 19, Heather moved to Fort Bragg and crewed on boats out of Noyo Harbor. In 2001 when she was 21, she bought her first boat with her life savings of $4,000 – a classic 1930s wooden troller. “And everything took off from there!” she remembers. It’s been twelve years since she realized her dream of being captain of an all-women crew, sometimes spending months away from home with just one other person. Her eyes sparkle as she recalls, “It’s like another big camping trip, just like the times I spent with my dad on our own boat.”
Fishing from her current steel-hulled troller, Princess, Heather and crew fish waters off the West Coast from Baja to Alaska. She can go “...wherever the fish stocks are strongest...” since she has offshore permits from all four coastal states, and Princess, being a troller, uses fishing lines only, catching one fish at a time. This makes her fish sustainably caught (third- party certified) and considered some of the highest quality fish on the market, fetching the best prices.
During my time on board Princess, docked in Noyo Harbor, I watched Heather cut frozen Alaskan King salmon steaks with a bandsaw while her newest crew member, Maia Grodin, washed and packaged the one-inch thick, deep pink steaks for an off-the-boat customer. It was comfortable being around the two as they affably talked, worked, joked, and laughed. They moved about doing their activities in the easy, unhurried manner of people who live in and work closely with the natural world. This year Heather and other crew member, Cybelle Priestley, fished Alaskan waters for Coho and King Salmon. With two people at sea, “...it gets pretty crowded after four months,” Heather chuckles as she and Maia vacuum packed fish in the tight cabin.
One of only four boats that quick freezes salmon from Baja to Washington, Princess has a blast freeze freezer below deck. Highly expensive and unique, the blast freezer is the coldest (to at least -30 degrees) and fastest way to freeze freshly caught fish making it possible for Heather and crew to fish off Alaska and return to Noyo Harbor with the best tasting sashimi grade catches of Coho and King salmon. This year they harvested about 23,000 pounds of Coho and 10,000 pounds of King salmon. Of that, 90% of the frozen fish is sold on 1,000-pound pallets to markets in Morro Bay, Los Angeles, Whole Foods, Ukiah Coop, including a monthly delivery to Scoma’s Restaurant in San Francisco. Selling whole fish and fillets off boat, or processed at Ocean Fresh plant, and at farmers markets, is only 10% of their income, but that market is expanding.
Year-round you can find Princess Fish’s local catches including King salmon, sablefish, albacore, rockfish, black cod, Alaska King and Coho salmon, plus smoked salmon and albacore at the Fort Bragg farmers market on Wednesdays and Ukiah farmers market every other Saturday. Call ahead to pick up whole frozen fish from the boat, cut and vacuum packed free, most Fridays.