San Diego's Open Air Fish Market
Karen Robes Meeks
It never ceases to amaze Peter Halmay.
On most days, all is quiet on the downtown San Diego pier between Seaport Village and the USS Midway Museum. But on Saturday mornings, the Southern California pier comes alive with fishermen, chefs and customers eager for fresh seafood at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, a weekly pop-up open-air fishermen's market.
The market, which operates from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, draws as many as 150 people milling around the pier an hour before the market opens to get their first pick at the local fare, displayed on nearly a dozen ice tables packed to the gills with different kinds of local fish such as Boccaccio, sea urchin, and rock crab, a big seller at the market.
"When we open at 8 o'clock, there's a line of 40 or 50 people, just for the rock crab," said Halmay, president of the San Diego Fishermen's Working Group. "The customers are there. It still amazes me."
The road had not always been easy for the dedicated fishermen's market. The struggle by fishermen to open the market had been hampered by bureaucratic red tape. The process, which Halmay calls a "three- to four-year merry-go-round," resulted in state legislation that now makes it easier for fishermen along the California coast to have open-air fish markets.
"This couldn't be done because the (San Diego County Department of Environmental Health) said there's no such thing as a fishermen's market," said Halmay, a fisherman who at 75 regularly dives for sea urchin. "The attitude was, 'It couldn't be done.'"
The county suggested the fishermen sell at a farmer's market, but it made no economic sense ferrying product away from boats and took away from the experience of buying fresh seafood by the water.
"It was just another form of a middleman stepping in and we wanted to avoid that because the main point we wanted to stress was that we weren't selling fish," Halmay said. "We were selling fishing. We wanted the community to know about us, explain to them how we caught it, where it was caught, the precautions we're taking for environmental reasons, and how to cook it."
It wasn't until a reporter for the Voice of San Diego wrote about the issue in 2014 that the idea gained traction.
"I read that article and thought, 'It shouldn't be that hard to deal with,'" said San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, whose district encompasses the port.
Cox worked with Unified Port of San Diego and county officials to help fishermen obtain a permit for an open-air fish market on port property.
"In a remarkably short time, we came back with a solution," Cox said.
Two weeks later, fishermen got a temporary permit that would be good for a year to run a market every Saturday at an unused pier at the Port of San Diego. County supervisors also directed county staff to look for ways to accommodate more open-air fresh fish markets.
San Diego's fish market opened with a lot of fanfare. More than 1,000 people came to the first Saturday, including some 200 to 300 people who were in line by 8 a.m.
"The response was amazing," Cox said. "It struck a chord with the public. They liked being able to buy fish from the guy who caught it the night before."
It also shed light on a rich fishing community that had been forgotten. For a long time, San Diego was known as "The Tuna Capital of the World." It was home to thousands of people who worked on fishing boats and tuna canneries.
But competition from foreign providers and other environmental, economic and regulatory issues led to the decline in commercial fishing in the mid-1980s. Bumble Bee Seafoods closed its longtime plant in San Diego in 1982, followed by the Van Kamp seafood cannery – San Diego's last tuna cannery – in 1984.
There's still an active fishing community in San Diego, with roughly 150 vessels currently in operation, according to the port.
The Port of San Diego's Industrial and Maritime Commerce sector accounted for 13,000 direct jobs on the San Diego Bay waterfront and generated $3.9 billion in direct, indirect and induced economic output in 2013, according to the port's Economic Impact report released March 2015.
That includes fishing, cargo handling and shipbuilding.
"Because of that fish market, people are aware that fishing exists in San Diego," Halmay said. "Until then, it was kind of (invisible). Now they know you can go there and talk to fishermen and buy directly from them. This fish market is our connector to the community."
One of the benefits of the market is supporting local fishermen, Cox said, adding that about 90 percent of the fish consumed in the US is imported.
"These guys are out there working real hard all week, taking time away from their families," Cox said. "And with all the competition from offshore, anything we can do to help support that industry is extremely important."
Since opening in August 2014, this market has been thriving, attracting on average 350 visitors per week. Based on reports from May 2016 to the present, the average monthly pounds sold amounts to 11,533, or 5.23 tons per month, according to the port.
"We haven't missed one Saturday in two-and-a-half years," Halmay said, adding that fishermen are seeing 35 percent of sales come from returning customers.
The local catch – caught by a core group of fishermen who range from young skippers to second- and third-generation veteran fishermen of Portuguese and Italian descent – includes roughly 30 species of fish.
On any given Saturday, the market will feature ahi, albacore, black cod, bluefin, bonito, box crab, Cal King crab, fish head, halibut, mahi whole, mako, Mongchong, octopus, ono, opah, prawn, rock fish, sand dab, sea cucumbers, sheepshead, skate, skipjack, squid, swordfish, shortspine thornyhead, top snail, white fish and yellowtail.
"You almost never see, unless you go to an Asian supermarket, fish like sand dabs or rock crabs and sea urchin because brick and mortar fish markets are targeting a certain group of consumers," said Kelly Fukushima, a 39-year-old San Diego fisherman who sells at the weekly fishermen's market.
Halmay said even sardine and mackerel – fish that fishermen wouldn't normally bother with because processors buy them for 50 cents a pound – are being sold for $3 a pound at the market.
"People love it," he said. "They are buying fish they normally wouldn't buy."
"We're creating a new market for species that were never marketable for us," he said.
It has changed the way fishermen fish, Halmay said.
"If they came across a school of mackerel, they'll stop and pick up 100 to 200 pounds because they can sell it," he said. "Before, they wouldn't think of stopping because 100 pounds at 30 cents is $30. Not much stopping for $30. But stopping for $300? That makes perfect sense."
Fukushima said the market allows him and other fishermen to educate people about local fishing.
"When you go to a (supermarket), you see fish in a styrofoam tray, filleted and wrapped in cellophane with a sticker," he said. "They don't know the work and the dedication and effort and the risk it takes to go and harvest that product in a timely, super high quality fashion and get it to them so they can feed it to their families."
The market also plays a critical role in developing the next generation of fishermen, Fukushima said. Every weekend, his three teenage sons help him catch and sell the fish and run a stand that sells sandwiches and tacos with fish from Fukushima's daily catch.
"It's the same for everyone down there," he said. "Everyone has kids and family helping out. It's incredibly important for the next generation in our industry and an opportunity to see young people be passionate about fishing as we are."
Fishermen hope to continue diversifying their catch by targeting their fishing to meet local consumer needs.
"They all see the huge benefit of having the community be aware that they exist," Halmay said. "They're saying, 'The market needs this, the customers want this. That's what I'll fish for.' They want the market to diversify because diversification is how they're going to succeed."
Local chefs also come regularly to the market. Halmay recalled a recent conversation he had with a fisherman whose participation at the market drew attention from restaurant chefs who now call him before he even lands to buy all his fish.
The fisherman, Halmay said, was worried that he didn't have fish to bring to the market.
"I said, 'That doesn't bother me at all,'" Halmay told him. "I think that means we're successful, because our purpose isn't just for the market to succeed, but for fishermen to succeed."
Building upon the success of the fishermen's market is critical as a developer moves forward with $1.2 billion plans to redevelop the Seaport Village. Halmay is part of a small committee to advise the developer on what the fishermen need to exist and to ensure that the market is incorporated in the design of the proposed revamp.
"This market has to be where fishing docks are," Halmay said. "It's part of the fishing infrastructure as far as we're concerned."
The story of San Diego's struggle to open a fishermen's market and its surprising success has rippled throughout the state.
Assemblywoman Toni Atkins championed AB226, also known as Pacific to Plate, legislation she introduced in February 2015 that would allow fishermen to establish their own market in California.
The legislation, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2016, streamlines the permitting process, allowing fishermen's markets to operate as food facilities.
"It got away from state law requiring that if you were going to sell fresh fish that operations had to be tied to a restaurant," Cox said. "(Atkins') legislation changed the food code for the state of California."
Stakeholders such as fishermen, restaurant owners, distributors, helped to craft the legislation, which went through the Assembly and Senate to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk in October 2015 without a single negative vote, Halmay said.
"We became a model for how a fish market is established," Halmay said. "Long Beach and San Pedro could do it now if they wanted. We look forward to other people starting it. I don't see it as competition. The direct marketing of local product everywhere needs a boost."