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The Underwater Hunter

A weight belt. A pair of long fins. A snorkeling mask. A wetsuit. A spear gun that looks like an underwater crossbow. A strong set of lungs. A clear, calm day. A high tide. A steady arm. A day off from work. A little luck.

That, says Eric Lohela, is his recipe for a good day of free-dive spearfishing.

Eric, who works in the commercial recycling program for the City of Santa Barbara, started spearfishing a few years ago, drawn to the sport through his experiences with scuba diving and hunting. “I bought some of the gear, learned the rules, and started fumbling around with it,” he says. “And it stuck. Now, I can even hit the fish,” he laughs.

Spearfishing is one of the main ways Eric is striving to eat locally and to create a relationship to where his food comes from. “Some people, including myself, like to go to farmers markets, but I believe you can take the experience to a new level and actually go harvest the food yourself, whether that’s vegetables or animals,” he says.

After reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2007, Eric made the decision to source his food even more locally and sustainably than he had been. To start, he defined ‘local’ as food grown or harvested within 100 miles of Santa Barbara, and for nearly a year, the majority of the food he ate met that requirement. The experience was an educational one, and he found it fascinating to learn about all the things you can — and can’t — grow in the area. In the six years since that initial commitment, he says, he’s evolved his definition of eating sustainably to be more nuanced than simply a mileage requirement, a recognition of the fact that sometimes local doesn’t equal sustainable.

“Even if someone grew rice in Santa Barbara, I wouldn’t eat it because of the amount of water it takes to grow rice. That’s not sustainable here. But the idea that anyone would ever eat organic lettuce grown more than 100 miles away from us, to me, defies reason.”

Still, Eric’s commitment to eating locally doesn’t mean he doesn’t make exceptions. “I have to be honest,” he says. “I can’t give up dark chocolate, so I’m always going to be buying it from somewhere else.” He makes similar allowances for certain ethnic dishes, too.

“For me,” Eric continues, “eating locally is primarily about celebrating Santa Barbara. It is a way to bring people together in a stronger community.” For example, he describes a Christmas dinner party he attended where the goal was to see how local you could make the dish that you brought. One participant’s total food miles were 47, Eric remembers. “People were inspired by each other and competing with one another, and by the end of it, I think everyone felt like they knew Santa Barbara just a little bit better.”

That same sentiment is true for Eric, especially when it comes to spearfishing. “Before I started doing it,” he says, “I could probably have told you what a rockfish was. Maybe. But I didn’t really know anything about the different types of rockfish or any other type of fish here. Now, I can ID between 15 and 20 species on the fly in the water in just a few seconds. Usually, I can say if they’re male or female, depending on what they look like. It’s really enriched my understanding of our underwater landscape and how special this place is.”

When Eric is ready to spearfish, he’ll blow through his snorkel, take a deep breath, and then submerge himself into the underwater mix, observing the landscape and the hunting prospects. If he likes what he sees, he’ll begin to pursue his prey — mostly different types of surfperch, lingcod, and rockfish. (Because of the relatively low numbers of spear fishermen and the fact that their techniques are more selective than nets, California regulations permit them to hunt a number of species, with daily bag and possession limits, year-round as long as they’re not in designated marine protected areas.) A typical spear gun will only shoot 10 to 15 feet, so Eric will have to be fairly close when he’s ready to pull the trigger. He’ll weave through the kelp forest — in water 10 to 40 feet deep — a hunter alongside other hunters including bat rays, skates, and leopard sharks.

“In that moment, I’m not thinking about anything else,” Eric says. “I’m utterly consumed by the process of harvesting the fish I’m after, and that, to me, is a beautiful thing. Spearfishing has really connected me back to Santa Barbara, especially the marine environment just offshore. I’m not sure people have any idea how beautiful it is out there. If they could see just what’s in 20 feet of water right off our coast, I think they’d have their minds blown.”

He blew away his visiting aunt and uncle recently when he decided to treat them to a locally sourced meal of fish tacos on the beach. After picking up an onion and avocadoes from the Santa Barbara Farmers Market and some locally made tortillas, Eric took his family down to the shore, where he jumped in the water with his spear gun. Not long afterwards, he emerged, several fish in hand, and using a water bottle and a small white gas camp stove, cleaned and cooked his catch. A few minutes later, the three were enjoying their tacos, right there on the sand.

“The meal was almost 100% locally sourced,” he says. “My aunt and uncle are from the East Coast, and they couldn’t believe it.”

Emily DeMarco

Emily DeMarco holds a master of environmental science and management from the Bren School at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she specialized in strategic environmental communication and water resources management.
Emily DeMarco

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