by Anna Levy
What a difference a few years makes. Back in the winter of 2016, the women behind the Fort Bragg-based fishing operation, Princess Seafood, were focused primarily on selling their catch through direct sales, farmers markets, and a few larger contracts. Today, to sit down for an interview with Heather Sears and Wendy Holloway means trying to find an open corner of a picnic table on the busy, sun-drenched patio of their brick-and-mortar market and deli in the Noyo Harbor, which they opened in May of 2018. Though Heather is often still out fishing, sometimes gone for months at a time, the two women are just as focused on making sure that the shop—which sells a variety of fish, prepared foods, a range of fresh sandwiches, and other deli items—is thriving.
Prior to 2018, the women primarily sold their catch off the boat, so when a space became available in the harbor, Heather approached Wendy to see if she was interested in a different kind of adventure: taking the chance of opening their own fish market. For Wendy, who was working as a fish biologist monitoring various species in coastal streams, it was a surprising turn, but one that proved intriguing. Soon, they started piecing together their vision, expanding their initial idea from just a market to a vision of a market that also served food.
Over time, they expanded their hours and added musicians. Last winter, they invested in a large tent so that customers could enjoy their meals without having to worry about the weather. The tent, which was Wendy’s idea, “was actually nice and cozy,” Heather says, laughing. “She was right, as per usual.” Now open six days a week, “Princess,” as it’s often called, has become a destination in the Noyo Harbor, a quick and easy favorite for both locals and tourists. Hungry customers line up for crab red pepper bisque, grilled prawn po’boy, and a locally caught poke bowl.
Heather and Wendy have a long history dating back to their first fishing trip together in 2004, when Wendy served as Heather’s first crew member. Though they both readily acknowledge the many adventures they had together on the ocean, Wendy says that for Heather, who has been fishing since she was a child and who bought her first boat when she was 21, “it’s been kind of a dream, to be able to have something like this where you have a local fish market where people can actually access the local fisheries.”
The whole endeavor has given them a chance to share the importance of fishing in a mindful and responsible way with those in Mendocino County. When it comes to what is considered local, Heather notes: “We don’t stretch it. We’re trying to be really transparent [about the process],” especially because there’s not a formal regulation for what can be considered local. “When you look at the global seafood market, when you think of the big picture, even California would be local,” she says. “But even that feels a little deceiving.”
Princess instead focuses on what comes into the Noyo Harbor. Though they feature their own fish, they also buy fish caught by other boats. “You have to,” Heather says. “You can’t fish for two species at the same time,” she explains. “The whole boat setup is completely different” depending on the fish being caught. “So if we were just to sell what I would catch, we would have one thing, and that would never work.”
As a result, they work with others in the harbor community who have different fish to offer. Wendy estimates that they buy from about 10 different boats. “There are some guys who go out and catch, you know, eight rockfish and a couple lingcod,” she says, “and then we buy that.” Heather chimes in, “They’re the best quality,” noting that small boats that go out for just one day at a time are able to access fish that she can’t bring in as easily in her larger boat. The result is “perfect, gorgeous, snow-white fillets” that meet both their standards and customers’ expectations.
As two people committed to ethical fishing practices—borne from their own respect for nature and backed up by the clear laws and guidelines in place by California as a whole—Heather and Wendy’s commitment to giving customers an excellent product is also balanced by the desire to help others understand what goes into the process. “You don’t just get to go out there,” Wendy explains. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of effort. People are kind of risking their lives to go out on the ocean. It comes at a cost to do it responsibly.”
“There are so many different kinds of fish being caught in different ways,” Heather elaborates. “It’s not all the same, and so sometimes you wind up paying more for a higher quality. You pay more to support your community.” All of that, though, is part of the joy of being able to share what Heather calls “a precious natural resource” that comes straight from the otherworldly existence of the ocean. “I really want people to know how beautiful and amazing our tiny little fisheries are,” Heather continues. “It’s hard to put into words, so I’d rather just have them see and say, ‘Look! Look at this fish!’”
Luckily, with Princess Seafood, it’s possible to do just that, even for those of us who have never fished on the ocean, for those of us who know nothing about how to find our way through the water, under the stars, looking for the best of the best to bring back home. Instead, we can enjoy the hard work that Heather, Wendy, and their crew has set into motion, whether in the fish we buy to serve at home, or in what we can enjoy on a picnic table on their sun-drenched patio in our own backyard harbor.
Princess Seafood Market & Deli
Open Sun, Mon, Wed, Thu 10am–6pm, Fri & Sat 10am–7pm
32410 N Harbor Dr, Fort Bragg | (707) 962-3123 | fvprincess.com
Anna Levy writes, cooks, and plans travel of all sorts whenever she can. She lives on the Mendocino Coast with her husband and two dogs.
Photos courtesy of Princess Seafood or Holly Madrigal.