The next time you’re at a seafood restaurant, ask your server which dishes feature San Diego seafood. You’ll be lucky if he or she lists one or two dishes, even at restaurants with ocean views and “fish” in the name. Why is this? Why is it so hard to find local seafood locally?

Turns out, it’s due to a combination of cheap competition, rigorous regulations, not enough fishermen to supply America’s Finest City and a lucrative export industry.

“It’s easy for wholesalers to buy imported seafood. It’s cheap. They don’t have the regulations we have,” says David Haworth, who’s been a commercial fisherman in San Diego for over 40 years.

Haworth has five fishing vessels that harvest everything from tuna to lobster to anchovy. U.S. fishermen like Haworth are among the most regulated in the world, he says.

Tuna Harbor Dockside Market

They are subject not only to a variety of fishing regulations, which change with the seasons, years and fisheries, but also to labor, environmental and health laws.

If they catch too many fish or harm protected species, like whales, they face consequences like closing the fishery, or changing gear or location. U.S. regulations are meant to ensure sustainability.n fact, the number of overfished populations in the U.S. is decreasing. However, these regulations increase the cost of getting a U.S.–caught fish from the ocean to your plate.

This higher cost, plus America’s preference for cheap, equals a wide selection of seafood imported from countries with few regulations and inexpensive labor—like frozen shrimp for $7.99 per pound, produced with slave labor or on the graveyards of mangrove forests—and a small or nonexistent selection of local seafood.

In order to supply all 1.3 million San Diegans the half-pound of seafood that the USDA recommends we eat each week, we’d need about 15 times the 2.3 million pounds that San Diego fishermen have caught in most recent years.

What happened to the area once touted as the Tuna Capital of the World?

“Fishing regulations make it difficult to gain access to fishing these days,” says commercial fisherman Dan Major, who fishes everything but spot prawn from Point Conception to the Mexico border.

The Major family
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market
The Major family
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market

In some fisheries, like spot prawn, there’s a limited number of permits and they can be costly. Some estimate that spot prawn permits are worth $250,000 to $350,000. These are outliers, but any permit is valuable. “The value of my permits is high, which means less competition. This allows me to consistently provide quality products,” Major says.

Overall, the cost of entering a fishery—permits, gear, boat and complying with regulations—limits the number of new entrants. Major says there are only about two dozen small-scale fishermen in San Diego who fish for their livelihoods.

What about already-established fishermen who want to call San Diego their homeport?

“San Diego needs infrastructure to support a larger fishing industry,” says Pete Halmay, a San Diego sea urchin fisherman.

Kate Masury and Emily Tripp, master’s students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, are researching sustainability and traceability in local fisheries. Their research suggests that we don’t find local seafood locally because much is exported.

“Overall, between 95% and 99% of California spiny lobsters are sold abroad to the Chinese market,” says Masury. Major and Haworth confirm they sell 95% to 99% of their lobster to wholesalers, for $18–25 a pound, who export most to China. San Diego restaurants and groceries can’t afford to sell California lobster because San Diegans wouldn’t buy them at what would be the marked up price.

“A significant portion [about 90%] is shipped [frozen] to facilities in China where it’s unfrozen, cut and cleaned, and then refrozen for additional shipping,” Tripp says of so-called locally caught market squid. “Much of it gets consumed in China … but a small portion comes back to the U.S.”

Meaning that the calamari you ate most likely crossed the Pacific at least once. How local is that?

We need to step up and start to support local fishermen and their businesses. With the planned redevelopment of the waterfront, our city has the opportunity to invest in its food system.

Redevelopment could go one of two ways. “The fishing infrastructure will be downsized as they make the waterfront into another yacht marina, or the area will be improved into a world-class working fishing harbor with all the infrastructure we need to provide sustainable seafood to San Diego,” Halmay says.

In the meantime, fill your seafood plate locally: When eating out or grocery shopping, ask for seafood caught by San Diego fishermen and diversify what you eat and try new things. San Diego fishermen catch boatloads of “under-loved” species, such as whelk and box crabs, so get creative and adventurous with these delicious local catches.

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