By Andrew Miller and Eric Keener

My first time spearfishing unfolded the same way a lot of firsts seem to: wide-eyed, eager and woefully under-lubricated. I pushed out of my comfort zone and surrendered to the unknown. In this case, that unknown was the murky, green, 53-degree water of Pacific Grove, California, and the supposedly tasty things that live within it. I say “supposedly” tasty because until that point, I had hardly ever handled—let alone cooked—a fish. Sure, I’d seen a few videos about how to take off a fillet. I’d even watched my friend do it in our driveway. But I had never taken an ingredient from nature, sliced off the poisonous and pointy bits and created something delightfully edible. 

If I’m being totally honest, I didn’t do it that day, either. Ten seconds into my 20-second breath-hold, I did manage to connect my flimsy, yard-sale-acquired pole spear with a small rockfish loitering just beneath the kelp canopy. I even managed to drag it back to shore after a clumsy, if well-intentioned, attempt at braining. Shortly after impaling my hand on a poisonous dorsal spine, I burned what were supposed to be fish tacos into an unidentifiable mess. As it turned out, I had just about as many skills in the kitchen as I did on the reef. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to give spearfishing an honest try, I was going to need some help. Catch and cook videos on YouTube became a daily staple. Like a lot of budding spearos, I spent hours watching people—who in many cases had no professional training—select the exact fish they wanted, and then proceed to turn every weird little bit of that fish into something I would eagerly pay money for. Over time, these videos not only built my confidence in the water – and in the kitchen, but also fostered a deep sense of respect for the fish I was harvesting. The first time I successfully brought my family and friends together over a half way edible meal I harvested myself, I was completely hooked.

These days, in the age of “doin’ it for the ‘Gram,” it can be easy to forget about the things that brought many of us to this sport in the first place. I’ve never been a guy who’s cared about trophy anything, but I’d practically sell a kidney to get a photo of myself straining to hold up a big wahoo. To be fair, those shots are epic, and they often have a positive impact on people joining the sport. But they also miss something critical—something that makes this sport unique.

That missing piece is largely why a group of California spearos recently decided to organize Monterey Bay’s first dedicated catch and cook spearfishing competition. By bringing the community together around food, we saw an opportunity to build support around spearfishing and showcase an often-misunderstood side of ocean conservation. 

With the help of countless sponsors and a flood of community support, the first annual Monterey Catch & Cook Competition (C3) came together this past November. Thirty-eight competitors from across California dove, harvested fish, and cooked restaurant-quality dishes on camp stoves, grills and other portable cookware. An impressive panel of judges including Executive Chef Thomas Snyder of Carmel’s Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse, Executive Chef Danny Abbruzzese of Monterey’s Portola Hotel & Spa, and Executive Chef Colin Moody of The Club at Pasadera, judged submissions “MasterChef “style, while volunteers from local non-profit Save Our Shores participated in a beach clean-up next door. When all was said and done, nearly 150 community members had shown up in support of ocean conservation and responsible seafood. 

Now, if you’re at all familiar with YouTube’s catch and cook scene, you could be forgiven for thinking this would be a day of simple recipes. Surely, the chefs-turned-judges must have expected an afternoon spent drowning in dry wraps and store-bought hot sauce. But if this event proved anything, it is that you should never underestimate a spearo’s commitment to his craft.

When monkeyface prickleback (Cebidichthys violaceus) is cooked incorrectly, it’s a lot like eating a slimy car tire. A lot of Northern California spearos would rather get skunked than come home with a monkeyface because it can be such a difficult fish to work with in the kitchen. But when resident Aussie, Dan Levy, smoked a whole monkeyface, wrapped in bacon, poached it in milk, and placed it front and center in a monkeyface chowder bowl, the judges were beside themselves. You may even hear the phrase “smoke the monkey!” echoing out of the kitchen as you dine at one of their high end restaurants.

And that wasn’t even the most surprising dish of the afternoon. Third place in the competition went to Shane Wescott, who decided a breezy California beach was the perfect place to experiment with—wait for it—puff pastry. His “Rockfish en Kelp,” styled after the French dish “Loup en Croûte,” featured rockfish fillets stuffed with spinach, herbs and cheese and baked in puff pastry in a camp fire pit turned Dutch oven. 

Matt Bond of San Jose, California, took home second place with an equally ambitious Malaysian yellow curry. Caramelized striped shore crabs and fish bones formed the base of the sauce, which Matt gracefully plated over crispy skin grass rockfish. Matt served the curry with matsutake and yuzu dirty rice, made with fresh uni, rockfish roe and rockfish liver. And, true to form, Matt grew, foraged or hunted every single ingredient in his dish—right down to the sea salt taken off the rocks of local tide pools. 

Last, but certainly not least, Huan “Solo” Le took home the gold with a dish that was, by any standard, a masterclass in flavor. Huan paired Canh Chua, a sweet-and-sour fish soup, with Cá Kho Tô, a clay pot caramel-braised fish. It was as if he packed the entire known universe of flavors into a single dish, each bite shifting from sweet to sour to savory in a seemingly endless parade down taste-bud lane. 

By the end of the day, everyone from the spectators to the judges was blown away by the quality of food and the dedication to craft that this event brought out. Executive Chef Moody even offered Los Angeles competitor Daniel Mastrolonardo a job on the spot after tasting his incredibly elegant garlic butter-basted rockfish over Portobello and almond risotto garnished with squid ink tuille and herb yogurt. Simply put, California’s spearos showed the eff up. 

Just as importantly, the broader community showed up too. The participants in Save Our Shores’ beach clean-up removed more than 50 pounds of trash and recycle from Monterey’s Del Monte Beach. The biggest trash collector of the day—an 8 year-old girl—took home a $150 gift card to the nicest steakhouse in Monterey County and a $120 e-bike tour of Big Sur for the family. As the event wound to a close, competitors, collectors and spectators celebrated this ocean-minded community over shared leftovers and a humongous raffle of high-end spear gear, prized culinary items, local family excursions and incredible art.

That ocean-minded community, and the camaraderie that comes with it, was ultimately the reason why this event was so successful and so meaningful. In a world where ocean plastics are set to outnumber fish; where illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing threatens to obliterate key fish stocks; and where runoff and development destroy critical reef habitat; it can be difficult for non-spearos to understand where spearos fit into the bigger picture of ocean conservation. But as Huan “Solo” put it after the event:

“Spearos tend to regulate each other and themselves when it comes to the fishery. We encourage using the resource sustainably, killing only what you eat, using the entire animal in your recipes, and educating others. The entire ethic behind spearfishing leads to preservation and greater awareness of what’s going on in our local marine habitats.” 

By giving this ethic a public platform, events like the C3 offer an opportunity to shift perspectives and show the non-spearfishing world how we fish for the future. 

Offer from the Founder: Eric “The Keeneroo” Keener is a California-based spearo and founder of the Monterey Catch & Cook Competition (C3). After being approached by spearos from several other states and countries who were seeking more information about the event, Eric has endeavored to help equip any spearo wanting to organize a similar event with information, documents, score cards and lessons learned. The C3 would like to thank its sponsors, including Bamboo Reef, Monterey Bay Kayaks, Suunto, Omer, DiveR, Gannet, Shun Knives, MBAY Freediving, artist Dwight Huang, and many others for making this event possible. Proceeds were given to Save Our Shores. Please contact catchandcookmonterey@gmail.com for more information.