Discussing the Economy of the Estuary

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

February 1, 2024

The Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce held its first “Breakfast on the Bay” event for 2024, bringing together business leaders to hear about the “Economy of the Estuary,” meet the new city manager and get a quick warning about new labor laws business owners will face in 2024.

Held Jan. 17 at the Community Center, the Chamber Board President, Cherise Hansen welcomed everyone and served as emcee.

Kim Banks, a human relations consultant with BBSI, gave a quick rundown of new laws businesses should take note of. Those include a hike in the minimum wage rate to $16 an hour and $20 an hour for fast food workers; and an increase in mandatory sick leave.

Banks said paid sick leave increased from 2-days (16 hours) to a full week (40 hours) a year starting Jan. 1. She added that “Sick time is protected” and business owners should figure out a way to make sure their employees get the extra pay. 

There are new “protected categories” of workers in terms of harassment and discrimination actions they should become aware of too. 

She said owners needed to be aware of “wage compression” as something being addressed in new labor laws.

Essentially, it’s when a new-hire employee comes in making as much or nearly as much as a long-time employee doing the same job, due to the market rate for salaries increasing faster than a company’s wage increases. It is seen as discounting all the experience and value that a long-time employee brings.

And with regards to marijuana, you can no longer use the fact that an applicant uses cannabis when making the decision whether to hire them or not.

City Manager Yvonne Kimball seemed to be the main attraction for the event, as several of her city staffers came for breakfast, which was sponsored by Carla’s Country Kitchen (with coffee from SLO Roast).

“My power team is here with me,” said Kimball, who was born and raised in China and was hired in Morro Bay back in August from the Sierra Foothills town of Jackson, Calif. Also at the event was former City Manager Scott Collins, now the executive director of the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo. 

Kimball explained that she came to the United States from China in 2003 as a 20-year-old college graduate. Her journey up the ladder in municipal government has taken her from Florida to Arizona to California and now Morro Bay.

“The ocean is one of the reasons I am here,” she said. A city manager in a small town has to be a Jack or a Jane of all trades.

“Everything falls on the shoulders of my team.”

She also had kind words for city council members, all of whom where also in attendance. “I’ve never seen a council work so hard.”

The main program discussing the economy of the estuary featured three speakers — Don Chartand, the executive director of Creek Lands Conservation; retired commercial fisherman Jeremiah O’Brien; and Executive Director of the National Estuary Program, Melodie Grubbs.

O’Brien spoke of the early history of commercial fishermen in Morro Bay, explaining that the Commercial Fishermen’s Organization was founded in 1972. He said, “A few of the men who founded it are still with us,” though they’d recently lost Dickie Sylvester, who died.

He said Morro Bay and Moss Landing were the pioneers of the famed California abalone fishery of the early 20th Century and at one time there were as many as 30 abalone dive boats plying the local waters.

He recalled Sandy Monroe a CFO founding member, who was also one of the founders of the United Reserve Fund, which insures boat captains and made liability insurance affordable so they could keep fishing.

“They saved me $200,000 in insurance costs,” O’Brien said. “It still exists today.” 

He added, “Our insurance costs are incredibly steep.” He said the MBCFO was a trailblazer. 

“Believe it or not,” he said, “we were one of the strongest commercial fishing organization on the West Coast. We’ve been recognized nationally and continue to work very hard today in the fisheries.”

He explained that Morro Bay is one of the top ports in California for landings and is number one or two on the California Coast for landing swordfish.”

Chartrand of the Creek Lands Conservation, a non-profit organization, said they do conservation work in the watersheds the feed into the Morro Bay Estuary — Morro Creek and Chorro Creek.

Currently, they are trying to restart the abalone farm north of Cayucos that was founded in the 1980s but closed down in 2020. The coastal ranch site is on the market for $20 million. Their organization bought the abalone farm and are trying to restart it. He said the hope is to bring new jobs and new ways to the fishery. “Finfish and shellfish have been over-harvested,” he said. “We want to work together to find a future that works for the economy and the environment.”

National Estuary Program Director, Grubbs said they were gearing up for 2025 and the 30th Anniversary of the MBNEP’s founding. 

They are currently revamping their “Nature Center” display, located on the second floor of Marina Square (NEP has offices there too). They do several things for the estuary, which is one of just 28 National Estuaries in the U.S. Their goal is to prevent development on “really big parcels around Morro Bay,” she said. They do Bay cleanup events and publish a “State of the Bay” report every three years. “Last year’s report is online.”

They have a water quality monitoring program using numerous community volunteers and NEP staff scientists in what they call the “Dawn Patrol.” 

“We rely a lot on our volunteers,” she said. 

The NEP also runs educational programs and is overseen by an executive committee. They have a staff of 17 now. But the COVID pandemic delivered “a big hit on our educational programs,” she said. Those center around giving teachers lessons on the estuary that they then teach their students. 

Visit Morro Bay Executive Director Michael Wambolt closed out the morning giving a quick update on their efforts to promote Morro Bay’s lodging and tourism industry. 

Visit Morro Bay is an assessment district amongst motels, hotels, B&Bs and vocation rentals charging 3% of a room night and pooling the money. Wambolt called the assessments a “bucket” that “allows us to do advertising and promotions that the members couldn’t do on their own.”

He noted that revenues are “running a little flat” right now in part because of last winter, which saw record snowfall and had skiers plying the slopes in Mammoth and the Sierras into the summer. 

He said his board appropriated an extra $350,000 this year to step up promotions through a “retargeting campaign to people who came here during COVID.” 

They also have a new slogan, he said goes to the essence of Morro Bay — “Come get Salty.”

The campaign will feature interviews with the folks from Grassy Bar Oyster Co., O’Brien and others and take “a deeper dive into who we are,” he said.

They’ve also purchased a 1960 VW Westfallia van that will be a sort of mascot for Morro Bay. Look for it around town.

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