South Coast Fishing Ports
June 1, 2017
Southern California, particularly San Pedro and San Diego, has a proud history that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when dozens of tuna canneries from big-name companies such as Chicken of the Sea and StarKist – and the massive fleets that supported them – dominated the landscapes of both cities.
And while foreign competition and more stringent environmental regulations may have shrunk the once dominant industry in these cities, they have not diminished Southern California's passion and enthusiasm for fish.
Stop by Tuna Harbor in downtown San Diego on a Saturday morning or at any of the wholesale fish markets on San Pedro's Signal Place in the pre-dawn hours and see the hustle and bustle of fishermen delivering to fish mongers, along with the hundreds of shoppers perusing rows of ice trays for the freshest seafood.
Here in Southern California, there's still a small but mighty fleet of proud fishermen devoted to their craft, fishing for consumers hungry for their diverse catch.
The second largest city in California contributes roughly 2.5 million pounds of fish annually from four commercial fishing vessel areas: Driscoll's Wharf, in North Bay near Shelter Island; Tuna Harbor in the downtown area, which has about 129 slips; Oceanside Harbor; and Mission Bay, which boasts 27 miles of shoreline, six public launch ramps, nine boat marinas and other amenities.
Roughly 130 commercial fishermen are based in those locations catching a wide variety of fish that include rockfish, rock crab, urchin, black cod, and sheepshead. In the more distant open sea waters they catch albacore, bluefin and yellowfin tuna as well as opah.
"The fishermen have to be diversified in what they do," said Tom Driscoll, president of Driscoll Inc., which runs Driscoll's Wharf. "It's not like up north where you have huge available food sources they can tap into. These guys are somewhat specialized."
It is not unusual to see fishermen with multiple vessels, using a certain boat depending on how plentiful a certain type of fish is, he said.
"It's very, very different than what you see in the Pacific Northwest," Driscoll said.
About 1 million pounds of what's produced out of San Diego comes from Driscoll's Wharf, which features 108 berths and more than a dozen commercial boats. The catch consists mostly of Big Eye and opah, followed by sea urchin.
"We want to focus on the market that's here and be able to help the local fishermen unload their catch," Driscoll said.
In that effort, Driscoll's is currently working with Tri Marine on an off-loading facility for squid, sardine and mackerel and plans to test its off-loading capabilities in the coming weeks, Driscoll said.
"If there's a market for these wet fish, we're going to try to provide a facility for that," he said.
Driscoll also signed a lease with Chula seafood, a small local processor, which is expected to be operational by end of May or early June.
"We're putting in the improvements and he's putting in the refrigeration equipment," he said of Chula seafood. "It's a nice way to have a local processor right there on the water who can help some of the local fishermen there."
There's been a movement in recent years to preserve and revive the local fishing industry here. Port of San Diego officials in 2009 commissioned a Commercial Fisheries Revitalization Study that contained recommendations for sustaining San Diego's commercial fishing through infrastructure improvements and raising awareness of the industry through enhanced marketing.
One recommendation was for a public seafood market for commercial fishermen. After a lot of political wrangling, the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market opened in 2014.
Every Saturday morning at the pop-up market operating on Fish Pier adjacent to Seaport Village, fishermen show up selling sea urchin and rock crab, directly to the public at a higher rate, and get the opportunity to tell the story of their catch.
Meanwhile, the port is pursuing redevelopment of an area on San Diego Bay known as the Central Embarcadero, which includes Tuna Harbor.
As part of the request for proposal that was issued for the project last year, bidders were asked to consider strategic improvements to support the growth and efficiency of the fishing industry.
The team of the winning proposal, 1HWY1, has been meeting with commercial fishing stakeholders as part of their due diligence process.
Peter Halmay, president of the San Diego Fishermen's Working Group, is part of a small committee advising the developer on what fishermen need in the new space, which includes ensuring that the pop-up market is incorporated into the design of the project.
"This market has to be where fishing docks are," Halmay told Fishermen's News in December. "It's part of the fishing infrastructure as far as we're concerned."
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, plans for the $1.2 billion project include 390,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space (quadruple the space at Seaport Village); 19,000 square feet of office space for marine-related businesses and 10,670 linear feet of marina docks at Tuna Harbor, which would be enough room for 51 commercial fishing slips, 82 recreational boat slips and 24 mega-yacht slips.
While no formal plans have been submitted, port officials said they are "pleased that 1HWY1 is working to build consensus on how to address commercial fishing within the project boundaries as well as define an overall, long term vision for San Diego Bay's commercial fishing industry."
This harborside suburb stands in the shadow of the nation's busiest seaport, the Port of Los Angeles, and the towering cranes that load and unload megaships that now visit weekly.
But before the port was ever a major power, San Pedro was once home to a thriving fishing industry that boasted more than 15 canneries and hundreds of employees that worked at facilities in San Pedro and Terminal Island.
That also included a fishing fleet of close to 500 boats, many run by Croatians, Italians and Asians, according to sanpedro.com.
The industry's impact to San Pedro is memorialized with a Fishermen's Memorial on Harbor Boulevard and remembered by third- and fourth-generation residents who remember working on the canneries or on the waterfront as longshoremen.
Tom Dorsey, who co-owns sanpedro.com with his wife, spoke about how his father used to take him to watch the hustle and bustle of hundreds of pounds of fish being unloaded for processing.
"The fish looked like Volkswagens to me," he said. "It was incredible."
A few years ago, Neptune Foods built a fish processing plant on three vacant Terminal Island buildings once occupied by Chicken of the Sea, which closed in 2001. The plant is now in operation and features on-site fish-freezing capabilities.
But foreign competition, increased regulation and a decline in tuna have led to the departure of most of San Pedro's fishing industry.
Still, there's a dedicated group of commercial fishermen in San Pedro. About 150 fishermen register annually with the Port of Los Angeles and dock either at Fish Harbor on Terminal Island or Southern Pacific Slip, also known as "S.P. Slip," on Sampson Way (east of Harbor Boulevard), on the south end of Ports O'Call Village.
The number of fishing vessels docked in San Pedro depends on the open fish seasons. On average, about 75 vessels are docked at the commercial fishing slips on any given day, according to the port.
At Fish Harbor on Terminal Island, fishermen mostly dive from vessels 40 feet or smaller for sea urchin and sea cucumbers, followed by spiny lobster, tuna, and groundfish.
"Typically, fishermen follow the fish and that can take them up and down the coast, from Mexico to Alaska," according to the Port of Los Angeles. "The fishermen that stay local (between San Diego and Ventura and Catalina) fish Hagfish (slime eel), urchin, crab and lobster. Other popular fisheries are tuna, swordfish, sardine, squid and mackerel."
They bring their catch to Signal Place, a stretch of street close to the waterfront where fishermen make pre-dawn deliveries to places such as J & D seafood, J DeLuca Fish Co. and State Fish Co. At these facilities, the longtime fish mongers are already cleaning and cutting the fish into steaks and fillets.
At J DeLuca Fish Co., local product such as sardines, squid and mackerel are unloaded and pumped directly into refrigerated trucks and sent to the production plant for immediate processing and blast freezing cells, "so it can be quickly frozen to ensure freshness and excellent quality," according to its website. "This results in the best quality product available."
With the revival of Asian restaurants, fishermen are catching rock and other shallow water fish and are delivering live to these eateries.
"They're finding little niches to stay in," Dorsey said.
But Paul Strasser, who owns the San Pedro Bait Co., said federal regulations in recent years have made fishing for things like mackerel more difficult, leaving most fishermen to catch squid.
"It's basically a squid operation now," he said.
Ports O'Call, a quaint New England-inspired fishing village of shops, restaurants and fish markets, is home to places such as the Crusty crab Fish Market and Restaurant and San Pedro Fish Market and Restaurant, both of which receive daily deliveries of fresh seafood.
The destination, built in the 1960s, is in the midst of a makeover. Last year, a developer announced his plans to pump $100 million into creating San Pedro Public Market, a new development to replace the aging Ports O' Call Village and set to open in 2020, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Ports O'Call's main anchor, the San Pedro Fish Market, will be in a new structure on the northern end of the project and feature an overhead balcony above the promenade.
Danny Kadota, who runs the Crusty crab, said he is concerned about the project's lack of acknowledgement to San Pedro's fishing history.
"They don't recognize the history of this place," he said, adding that fishermen from all over the world perfected their methods for catching fish to grow into a major industry in San Pedro.
"It started here," he said. "There's a lot of nostalgia here."