Up by six in the morning, home by five that night. The day was spent in the ocean, four to six hours submerged beneath the surface looking for the next catch.
A couple months ago, this was all Stace Cheverez knew – diving and fishing. Then pandemic struck, and his buyers fell away. With restaurants shutting their doors and market prices dropping, the local fisherman was left to fend for himself.
So he did.
Instead of selling to fish processors, who then sell to restaurants, Mr. Cheverez resolved to get his product out to the public directly. With the help of other fishermen who have joined the operation, Mr. Cheverez now offers fresh seafood immediately out of Santa Barbara Harbor – no restaurant, grocery store or processor needed.
“We’re trying to stay alive,” said Mr. Cheverez. “We’re selling what we sold before, just without the middle-man. We have one- to two-day old products that we’re selling, and the local community is buying from us right away.”
Across from the West Marine boat shop at 132 Harbor Way, customers can purchase halibut, spot prawns, crab, and sea urchin, among other products, right off of Mr. Cheverez’s boat, the Florentina Marie. And with the option to pay digitally, as well as the freedom of open air, people can breathe easy as they support a local business.
“We’re stoked,” said Mr. Cheverez. “With the community support that has been happening, it’s unbelievable. We’re blown away. Within one week, it seems like this is going to work.”
While the venture may have officially started a week ago, the concept of direct seafood services is something Mr. Cheverez has dreamed of for over 20 years. But it wasn’t until COVID-19 threatened his livelihood did he make the idea a reality.
“(The coronavirus) pushed me to provide for my family,” he said. “It pushed me to think of other options to get rid of product. It lit a fire under me. That’s how I am. I find a problem and I solve it.”
Yet Mr. Cheverez isn’t a stranger to adaptation.
Over the last 40 years, the born-and-raised Santa Barbara fisherman has leaned on diving for support. After scoring a job with a dive shop in high school, Mr. Cheverez was hooked. But when he found himself the captain of a liveaboard dive fleet, leading groups of over 45 on deep-sea adventures, he was in over his head.
Deciding to walk away, Mr. Cheverez pursued what would define his life for the next three decades – sea urchin diving. Still, when unusual weather patterns threatened his usual catch a couple years ago, Mr. Cheverez began to rely on more than one product to make a living, like lobster.
That is, until the coronavirus swept China, and his lobster buyers disappeared.
“Two months ago, I found out there was no market because we weren’t shipping to China,” he said.
Determined to see his plans through, Mr. Cheverez went out, bought a scale and earned the appropriate licenses to sell straight to consumers. For the next two months, he sold 150 to 300 pounds of lobster a week at $15 a pound.
But even that success was short-lived.
When March rolled around and lobster season concluded, it was time to dive for sea urchin. And Mr. Cheverez watched his buyers slip away once again.
“Coronavirus kicked into America, and suddenly all of the sushi bars shut down,” he said. “I started selling right off my boat again.”
But this time he wasn’t alone. Noticing his friends were in the same position, Mr. Cheverez began to buy out their products to sell from his boat. Now, although only a few days into their operation, Mr. Cheverez hopes to establish their business as the first Santa Barbara Fisherman’s Co-Op.
“We’re trying to promote Channel Islands-caught seafood,” he said. “We 100% plan on continuing this.”
To ensure the operation persists long past the pandemic, Mr. Cheverez has already begun to expand the idea beyond the Florentina Marie.
Every day, he posts the boat’s daily selection to his Instagram account @unidiver, getting the word out to anyone in the area. On the weekends, Mr. Cheverez can be found at the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, filleting fish from 6 to 11 a.m.
For those who are a little more averse to leaving their homes, Mr. Cheverez wants to take his co-op on the road. While he has yet to get approval from the Santa Barbara Public Health Department, Mr. Cheverez recently bought a van to sell seafood door-to-door.
“This would be for people who are unable to get to grocery stores,” he said. “We can give them products that are healthy and fresh. It can’t get much fresher than a fisherman.”
To limit contact as much as possible, Mr. Cheverez would drop off the desired products and expect payment online. This way, no in-person interaction is required.
“I want people to feel safe,” said Mr. Cheverez. “We’ll deliver an ice chest to their doorstep and pick it up later. No contact necessary.”
Mr. Cheverez even imagines a storefront for the business one day, but for now, his focus lies on getting settled.
“I’m putting multiple hours into a new business and just learning how to push the product,” he said. “I was a diver. I know how to dive and how to fish. Now I’m learning how to run a business smoother, and I want to make it a well-oiled machine.”
And it looks like his efforts are beginning to pay off.
“Now that I’ve adapted, it definitely looks like it’s going to work,” he said. “It all depends on community support…We’re going to see if we can keep surviving if the community jumps in.”