Nick Vitalich, Jr. scans the oyster-colored sky for rain. All he wants is a bit more time. Behind him is a pinewood crate attached to a cable and winch, which dangles about four feet off the ground. He peeks into the box, filled with 200 pounds of pink and orange rockfish, and pulls out an unwanted gray mackerel. Crouching low, he jams his left shoulder under the crate, lifts one end, and dumps the fish into a galvanized container large enough to hold a ton of seafood.
Before he climbs into the yellow Toyota forklift to cart the fish into the warehouse, he points at the skipper of the seiner that has just docked. “You’ve got to understand the Sicilian temperament,” says Vitalich, a Yugoslav. “They start out everything they say and do from the perspective that life is very hard, that they’re working and working but barely making ends meet, even if they’re doing all right. They’re a very sad people in their work.”
As Vitalich hauls the cargo to Chesapeake Fish Company, on the waterfront near Harbor Drive and Market Street, a menacing sou’wester blows in cold from over the ocean, bringing with it a trace of rain. A man named Joe Engrande ambles over to the pier from the nearby People’s Fish market and restaurant, of which he is part owner. He is wearing black rubber boots and a yellow apron. “Where’s Whitey?” Engrande asks a man on a fishing boat. The skipper of the craft points out past Coronado and says,“He’s still out there. Man, he’s tough. We came in last night, it was getting so bad. Hit a south swell.” Engrande, who comes from an old Sicilian fishing family, turns back toward his store. “Those guys are taking their lives in their hands when they go out in weather like this,” he says in a voice of admiration and frustration. “My oldest boy works on a tuna boat. He lost his thumb and part of a finger in some machinery on the boat. It’s a rough life. I hope my youngest boy doesn’t ever want to fish. He’s in school. I don’t think he wants to. Jeez, I hope not.”
On a different day, when the sun is shin- ing and the weather is warm, two fishermen have pulled their creaky 40- footer against the pier. They are slicing open three thresher sharks that were trapped in the boat’s gill net: The skipper, Salvatore Russo, yells at a young Italian on the dock and says the roller broke, so they had to haul in the net by hand. Both Sal and the young man are compatriots from Palermo, Sicily. The young one is newly arrived; Sal, who is short and swarthy and in his middle 40s, has fished the waters off San Diego for 14 years.
That morning Sal and his mate had left for the open sea to catch rockfish for a local seafood market, but because the roller broke, they had to return early and be satisfied with the sharks they had already snagged. When they arrived back at the pier, the man from the market said he didn’t want sharks, so Sal went to Chesapeake and talked to the manager, who agreed to buy them for 65 cents a pound, cleaned. Sal said later,“I don’t like fishing for those other guys. All the time, they cry to me. They say, ‘Hey Sally, go fish for me.’ Then when I come back and they don’t like what I got, they cry. Waa waa.”
Sal wears a pair of faded Rugged K overalls, thigh-length rubber boots, a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue baseball cap. His mate, a gray-bearded man of 50 with a finely weathered face, wears a white thermal undershirt and a yellow apron. The old graybeard digs a short-bladed knife under the left pectoral fin of the biggest shark and carves forward under the gills, splitting the shark open. He sticks his fist into the open wound and removes the warm, bloody innards, tossing them onto the boat deck. As he does so, four fully developed baby sharks spill from the open gut onto the deck next to the pile of steamy entrails. Unperturbed, the fisherman turns the mother shark over and cleans the other side, then cuts off the head and the long, flat tail. He washes his hands in a gray, plastic bucket, mixing blood and seawater.
David Ptak, manager of Chesapeake, cranks the pierside electric winch and lifts the carcasses from the boat onto the waiting forklift.“Hey!” yells Sal from the deck. “You got it!” A crowd of onlookers approaches from a nearby seafood restaurant. Sal grabs hold of the shark heads, jams winch hooks through the eyes, and hangs the heads in a grisly public display. Most of the gawkers avert their eyes and walk away. Sal climbs from his boat and follows Ptak into the warehouse, where the fish are weighed. Ptak writes out a check for $325: a day’s work for Sal and his mate.
That money, though, is not all profit, as any fisherman will attest. There are boat payments, equipment repairs, gasoline, and other expenses that must be considered before salaries. And to make matters worse — to make life even rougher than it already is — Sal and his colleagues must contend with a ban on sword- fish accidentally caught in their gill nets. “Hey, what am I gonna do?” he asks.“A swordish, he swims into my net. I gotta cut him loose. Why not I give him to the poor people? It’s nuts, I tell you. It’s already dead, but I gotta cut him loose. When they do stuff like this, you know what happens to guys like me?” He stamps his foot onto the cement bulwark of the dock and grinds his foot as if crushing a burning cigarette.
Although Ptak (pronounced pea-tack) was not expecting the sharks, he bought them anyway. Chesapeake Fish Company, the largest seafood wholesaler in San Diego, often finds itself currying favor with the local fishermen to maintain good relations. “We’re trying to keep as many local boats operating as possible,” says 36-year-old Ptak. “We sometimes do that at a loss of money, because it will prove good for us in the long run. Some of those fishermen wouldn’t meet if Chesapeake stopped buying fish. It would be difficult to admit that Chesapeake is keeping them going, but that is basically the case. We could possibly get all the fish we need from Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, and at a cheaper price, but the local fisherman is a convenient safety valve. Who knows how long the Northwest can keep up the high productivity it has now? In 15 years, I might be relying on the local boats to keep us in fish. In the long run, I need those guys.”