San Diego was once the Tuna Capital of the World. Canneries lined the waterfront, waiting to process the catch. But in the late 1970s concerns over dolphin safety pushed the industry to Japan. The last San Diego cannery closed in 1982.
Since then the San Diego fishing industry has floundered. Fishermen have struggled to make a living. Some migrated up the coast to more favorable seafood cities like San Francisco or Seattle. Others quit altogether. Our iconic seafood delicacy, the fish taco, was built around imported fish: Alaskan pollock.
Meanwhile, a coalition of dedicated fishermen has worked to preserve the industry. The San Diego Fisherman's Working Group was founded and is led by Peter Halmay. Just recently they've succeeded in establishing a direct market presence for San Diego fishermen: the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market.
The market is breathing new life into our fishing industry. Fishermen are returning to San Diego to sell their catch at higher profits, which translates to less pressure on the fisheries. And San Diegans have gained access to some awesome fresh, local and sustainably harvested seafood.
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is the best thing to happen to San Diego fishing in decades, and it's one of the most exciting things happening in our city right now.
Peter Halmay moved to San Diego in 1975 to start a sea urchin fishery. Urchins feed on kelp and are somewhat predator resistant. The local population had exploded and the kelp harvesters were poisoning them with quicklime. Halmay brought a fresh idea: fish the urchins and let nature strike a new balance.
Now San Diego produces 750,000 pounds of urchins each year (and close to 100,000 tons of kelp). A market-sized urchin is seven years old—they are not fast-growing creatures. But Halmay says they're "fecund"; the population is stronger than ever.
"We had huge recruitment five years ago. They're everywhere down there." The comanagement of urchins and kelp has created a booming ecosystem. It's a success story for both San Diego and fishery management.
Halmay hopes the market, and the niche fisheries it enables, will facilitate more success stories like the urchin. He hopes to attract new fishermen and new customers and change the way we eat fish. "We need to get away from one or two big fisheries and start eating some of the under-loved species. Try some squid, or sardines. A few dollars goes a long way and they're delicious!"
Though Halmay hung in through years of decreasing interest and increasing regulation, most of his generation of fishermen has quit. In the past few decades a younger generation has moved in to tend the lines.
Giacomo D'amato sells black cod, thornyheads and sand dabs at the market. He is a fourth-generation fisherman, and captain of the fishing vessels Ocean Princess and Giusy. He learned to set deep water long lines as a child and has been fishing up and down California for 20 years.
D'amato sees the market invigorating customers and fishermen alike. "I've noticed a lot of people needed a place like this," he says. "They can interact with fishermen: see what they're getting, get some recipes and know where the fish comes from. Almost like they're catching it themselves."He is also excited about what the market means for his business and the fishery. "We are shifting away from fresh and moving more towards live." Extra handling means D'amato can charge a little more. "That lets us get as much as we can from the catch, minimizing damage to the resource."
Dan Major is a native San Diegan who captains the fishing vessel Plan B. Tory Becker works as crew. They've been fishing rock crab, box crab and octopus out of San Clemente Island for the past 17 years.
The Plan B crew enjoys interacting with their customers.
"People got into the farm-to-table movement for produce, then they moved to beef, and now it's finally coming to the ocean," says Becker. "They care about where their fish is coming from. They care that we care about the species. We're a sustainable fishery: We throw back females; we throw back smalls; we're careful with the fish we do keep. These crab like cold water, we refrigerate the water they're in. If we're on the boat a few days we feed them."
"Our niche is the live market," agrees Major. "Seeing it alive—you can't compare that to frozen or precooked. I'm satisfied to know I'm providing a good product to customers. I don't sell anything that I wouldn't eat myself."
It's exciting to walk the market and see the strange, and potentially delicious, creatures that live offshore. Talking to the fishermen I learned our local fish are some of the tastiest out there yet for some reason have traditionally been deemed commercially unviable (like most non-Hass avocados). These are exactly the sorts of foods that we should be eating: local, seasonal and less commercialized.
If humans intend to continue eating fish, we must maintain a responsible harvest. California has some of the strictest fishery management in the world, regulating seasons, method of take and quotas.
By tightly regulating the catch, we can maintain healthy populations. By eating the less-well-known species like black cod, box crab and, for that matter, urchin, we can distribute the pressure across a broad variety of species. And as customers buy more sustainably harvested fish, we reduce demand for less-responsible, imported products.
The Dockside Market represents the convergence of fishermen, fishery science and consumers. It really is one of the most exciting things happening in San Diego. It stands to breed new fishermen, to help sustain our fisheries and to educate consumers on the delectable but unknown seafood that lives just off our coast.
Going forward, direct interaction between fishermen and customers is going to be crucial for the future of our fisheries.
To get a taste for yourself, visit the Dockside Market, held Saturdays at 8 am at the Tuna Harbor Pier near Seaport Village.
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market
598 Harbor Ln, San Diego, CA 92101
Saturday's at 8 am