A crowd gathers to watch the crew of the Mary K commercial fishing boat pull in a catch of mostly shrimp last week at the Navy Pier in the Santa Barbara Harbor. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

It took something terrible to turn Santa Barbara business advocates onto the idea of doing some good for the local commercial fishing industry.

That awful thing — the May 2015 oil pipeline leak near Refugio State Beach — scared customers of all sorts away from seafood caught locally, crippling some fishing operations long after officials said the fare was safe to eat.

Around that time, the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce realized it could do a better job serving fishermen by coming up with a collective campaign to brand local catch sold outside the area.

The plan is coming together this month as the chamber seeks to hire a full-time marketing expert dedicated to the cause, and one whose salary will be funded by the chamber and Plains All-American Pipeline, the Houston company responsible for the pipeline rupture that spilled more than 100,000 gallons of oil into the Pacific Ocean.

“We have one of the largest commercial fleets on the California coast, and yet in Santa Barbara I don’t think we really think a lot about that,” said Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara chamber. “As we get someone on board, we’ll be doing a lot more.”

Fish Santa Barbara is the placeholder name for the initiative, which is funded for the first two years but could be extended, Oplinger said.

After talking with commercial fishermen, he said Fish Santa Barbara also will work to provide incentives so local restaurants actually sell locally caught seafood instead of cheaper out-of-state options that many currently buy.

Commercial fishermen land more than 10 million uni, crab, lobster and more each year, worth about $10 million to $11 million for fishermen themselves, according to Santa Barbara Harbor operations manager Mick Kronman.

The industry injects nearly $30 million into the local economy annually, he said, serving as the cornerstone of the working harbor with some 60 to 80 boats supporting about 200 fishing families.

“I think the whole notion of sustainable, local and organic — they call it SLO — is a wonderful idea to support our local fisheries,” Kronman said.

Right now, most commercial fishermen are on their own when it comes to marketing.

Some have turned to social media or to direct marketing with sales to consumers bright and early every Saturday morning on the Navy Pier at the harbor.

“That was the birth of some of this,” said Chris Voss, a longtime local fisherman and president of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara. “I think it’s a great opportunity for us to get some professional expertise.

“ We’ve never had a situation where a dedicated person was going to spend a lot of time and effort and expertise in branding.”

Voss said the power of social media presents an opportunity for the industry organization, which until now has never had a dedicated staff member. They’re all out fishing when the weather is good enough to do so, he says.

Voss was happy to be directly involved with the chamber’s hiring process, hoping to undo some of the damage from the oil spill and to raise awareness for what’s being caught locally.

The initiative comes at a time when many fishermen are still going through the claims process with Plains, which is also facing several lawsuits from fishermen, homeowners, the City of Santa Barbara and more.

“We’re going to take a bad situation and do something good out of it,” Voss said.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at gpotthoff@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.