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The visionary behind the Help Neil Catch Fish Foundation

The visionary behind the Help Neil Catch Fish Foundation

(Originally published in the San Diego Reader March 4, 2015.)

Keith Berkley wants to share his lobster with me. And by “share his lobster with me” I mean, he wants me to witness the bay-to-table journey of the spiny crustaceans that will take center stage at the Saturday-night feast he’ll throw at his South Park home.

Tonight, we’re on Pangüero, his 24-foot Mexican skiff, in the middle of San Diego Bay, on a mild, moonlit Monday night, three days into lobster season. While we float quietly by a large buoy near the Navy research center, Berkley’s friend Howard Blackson untangles the trap lines and Berkley hacks up the bait. When Blackson has each trap ready, he opens the bait canisters and stuffs them with the skipjack tuna, giant squid, and sardines that Berkley hands him. Then, as Berkley steers us in a wide circle around the buoy, Blackson tosses three traps out one at a time.

To me (squeamish, fearful, land-centric) it looks like hard, stinky work, but these guys are out here for fun. The lobsters we catch tonight will live in the salt-water pond in Berkley’s backyard until the Saturday-night shindig.

“Think about how expensive lobster is,” Berkley says, as if our presence here tonight is part of a money-saving scheme. Then he dismisses that thought and says, “Well, if you factor in your effort and all the costs associated with [getting the lobster yourself], the boat, the bait, and everything, you should just go buy it. But that’s not the point.”

He pauses and squints his eyes, searching, apparently, for right words. Then he finds them and says, “It’s like, harvesting from the ocean, which is kind of cool.”

Berkley, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound construction contractor with sun-pinked skin, a well-fed belly, and a handful of dreadlocks on his head, is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy for whom good things just…happen. In the short week of our acquaintance, two last-minute invitations land him with field passes at a Chargers game one night and at a Lakers game on another night — all unplanned. Earlier tonight, he showed me videos of himself in the Chargers hallway beneath the stadium, fist-bumping the players as they passed. When I asked if it was before or after the game, he said, “Before. If it was after, I’d have been hugging them.” (Tomorrow evening, he’ll send me a text that says, “Ended up at Laker game. Just hung out with [owner] Janie Buss. Turns out Howard knows her.”)

Even his million-dollar company just happened.

Granted, he was ready with his double master’s degree in business and Latin American studies, but getting involved in the construction trade wasn’t part of his plan. He had imagined he’d end up in international development or something similar that would use his degrees. The restaurant he’d been managing in La Jolla through graduate school closed down, and he turned down other restaurant offers because he knew they’d want a commitment and he believed the big post-graduate grown-up job was right around the corner.

“One of the bussers at the restaurant that closed worked for a contractor doing construction, so I called them up and asked them, ‘Hey, do you guys need any labor? I’ll do whatever,’” he says.

He got the job.

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