January 24, 2024
By Alison Lorenz, WSG Science Writer
Before Thomas Foster-Kibbler got into commercial fishing, he wanted to be an EMT on a firefighting crew. He was living in sunny Los Angeles County, training to help others. The problem? He was spending all his spare time and cash sport fishing on charter boats and spending, as he says, “too much money to go fishing all the time.”
That’s when something clicked. Foster-Kibbler decided to try a career in fishing commercially, and found a new way to care for his community – through providing high quality, nutritious, locally caught seafood.
In one way or another, Foster-Kibbler has been fishing all his life. Growing up, he fished at every opportunity – with his grandfather and on family vacations early on, and sport fishing and working on charter boats as he grew older. Eventually, he began working on other commercial fishers’ boats. Asked what he likes so much about fishing, Foster-Kibbler’s answer was simple: “The freedom it offers. Being outside, seeing the sunrise and the sunset…mentally, it just felt good.”
He started out albacore fishing up and down the West Coast, eventually adding crab into the mix. Meeting and marrying his wife, Heather Auld, added her background in marine behavioral ecology and conservation to the pair’s expertise. When Foster-Kibbler’s Falcon Fishing Company bought a boat, the Falcon, in 2021, it allowed them to take things to the next level – and start bringing to life a vision they had for a fishing operation that was not only successful, but sustainable. The goal was to put in the time, care and attention to bring their customers the highest quality catch possible.
Now, Foster-Kibbler catches juvenile albacore tuna and groundfish – including black cod, rockfish, sole, and lingcod. The cod, sole, and lingcod are caught using pots, while the albacore and rockfish are caught hook and line. This means that Foster-Kibbler and deckhands handle each fish individually. After they’re caught, the fish are bled, individually hung and blast frozen to super cold temperatures right on the boat. While Foster-Kibbler acknowledges there are “definitely more efficient” ways to catch and handle fish, this level of care ensures the final product is preserved at its optimal quality and freshness.
Quality and freshness aren’t traits customers always associate with frozen fish, something Foster Fisheries is working to change. “We definitely like to educate our customers – and generally, when they show up to the boat, they have a lot of questions,” Foster-Kibbler says of selling his frozen catch. Record-low tuna prices this past summer led he and Auld to begin directly marketing and selling to customers right off the Falcon. A big part of their job now is making sure people understand that fish frozen with today’s “quick-freezing” technology is just as good, if not better, than fresh fish put on ice. It’s just one of the challenges of direct marketing – but when all is said and done, Foster-Kibbler enjoys selling off the boat best: “I really like the customer engagement, educating people on our methods…It’s nice to have their questions get answered.”
In this new chapter, Foster-Kibbler and Auld are focused on reaching more people and growing their client base. Foster-Kibbler posts regular updates on Foster Fisheries’ Instagram, where customers can learn where the Falcon is docked and which fish are available to buy. He and Auld also want to advocate for resources that would help fishers just like them market and sell seafood directly to customers. For example, currently, due to food safety regulations, operations like Foster Fisheries aren’t able to process fish in ways that make it easier to sell on their boat; instead, they sell only whole fish. A public processing and storage facility where they could bring catch to cut into portions, vacuum pack and freeze, notes Auld, “would help customers buy fish off the dock [more easily]. It’s a cool experience…but it’s hard for a customer to buy a [whole] ten pound fish.”
It’s clear, however, that customers appreciate the extra care Foster Fisheries puts into their catch. Once, a customer sent a video of herself fileting a whole tuna fish she had bought. She used a spoon to scrape every last piece of meat from the bone, assuring Foster-Kibbler and Auld that none of it would go to waste. Another time, a customer dry-aged an albacore tuna, treating it like a fine steak. “Customers contacting Thomas directly and telling him how great the fish was or what they did with it,” Auld says, “[that’s] one of the things that’s really rewarding.”
While they most often sell in Westport, Foster Fisheries is planning their second trip to Seattle this February or March. Their Instagram is the best place to go for details. Wherever the Falcon takes them in the future, they’re excited to offer what they do best: high-quality, locally caught fish.
Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, helps people and marine life thrive through research, technical expertise and education supporting the responsible use and conservation of coastal ecosystems. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.