“We’ve got a lot of customers that, for example, are asking for mackerel.”
It’s just before 8:00 on a cool December morning.
A crowd of about 30 people has gathered at the edge of a short pier on the north end of Seaport Village. A light breeze blows in off San Diego Bay, carrying the scent of freshly caught fish and live crustaceans being unloaded into ice-packed display tables and water-filled tanks.
“Forty-eight through at the open. We’re down from last week,” mutters Pete Halmay, a 74-year-old sea-urchin diver and one of the local fishermen who have toiled for years to get the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market up and running.
Still, customers continue to roll in as the morning progresses, perusing tables of iced whole and filleted tuna, rockfish, cod, swordfish, and tanks filled with live crabs and sea urchin along with a display of stacked cans of locally caught tuna, which is shipped to Seattle for canning since no local facilities exist in what was, as late as the 1960s, the tuna capital of the world.
Tuna Harbor pier
The market is the first of its kind in California. While there are other places to buy fish along the coast, none until now have featured local fishing boats offloading their catch directly into displays for consumers to buy a whole fish or stroll over to an on-site filet station to have their purchases rendered into the cuts recognizable from grocery-store seafood counters.
When it first launched in mid-2014, the market was operating in a sort of gray zone, with no working legal definition of what, exactly, a fishermen’s market was.
“We had a hard time with the concept of a fishermen’s market. People would say, ‘Oh, a farmers’ market.’ No! ‘Okay, a fish market.’ No!” insists Halmay, who takes a few minutes away from returning a constant procession of greetings from friends to explain. “A farmers’ market isn’t called a produce market — I mean, you sell produce there, but supposedly you’re buying from the guy that grew it. The guys here, they come in, tie up their boats, and you’re buying directly from the people that caught it.
“So we tried to set it up, and it turns out there’s no such market in the law. And if the word doesn’t exist in law, the concept doesn’t exist. That meant we had to get a law passed codifying what it is we’re doing out here.”
Enter county supervisor Greg Cox, who helped form a working group that involved Halmay, other market vendors, government agencies, and California Assembly speaker Toni Atkins. Using Tuna Harbor as a testing grounds for their ideas, the group crafted legislation that resulted in Atkins’s introduction of Assembly Bill 226, the “Pacific to Plate” law, which took effect statewide on January 1.
“Up to this point regulators had kind of lumped fish markets in with the regulations governing farmers’ markets. It’s kind of hard to do that, for a number of reasons,” Cox told a group assembled in early December to celebrate the passage of AB 226. “We’re all familiar with places like the fish markets in San Francisco, Pike Place Market in Seattle — the difference is that they’re tied into a restaurant, which we don’t always have in these situations.”
The restaurant, and its sanitary facilities, proved to be the key component in allowing the other venues to exist. Under AB 226, fishermen’s markets are designated as food facilities. This allows fresh fish to be cleaned onsite and clarifies in state law that products like whole fresh fish are allowed to be sold in an open-air storefront. The other major accomplishment of the law allows multiple vendors to organize under a single permit in the same way farmers’ markets are set up.
“A lot of people won’t buy a whole fish because they don’t know what to do with it,” Halmay says. “So we had to add the cutting booth a few months after we opened, realizing we could double our business with fish ready to cook. That’s the beauty of this — we learned the whole thing as we went. And they ended up wording the law so that it fit what we’d need. Now we’ve got a ‘how to’ list to let anyone else start this.”
There’s already talk of other markets up and down the coast, Halmay says. Serious interest is forming outside the county, and there are rumblings of other markets starting in Mission Bay and possibly Oceanside. Given its fledgling state, I wonder if these worry Halmay and other Tuna Harbor suppliers.
“I wouldn’t worry about it, as long as it’s not on the same day,” he responds. “Remember, we’ve got about 70 farmers’ markets in town...who would have thought that you’d have had that demand?” Halmay responds. “We fishermen like the possessive pronoun — ‘That’s my spot, my fish,’ whatever. But that’s not necessary, we’ve got three million people in this market and we might very well be happy to take some of our catch over there, let them bring some of theirs down here.”
Zagat video on Pete Halmay’s urchin diving boat
While there are currently 22 fishing boats that participate in the market, most aren’t involved every week. Halmay and his urchin, along with suppliers of fresh and canned tuna, cod, mackerel, and others, make up the core of participants that show up on a weekly basis. Selling direct has proved to be an economic boon, attracting interest from other fishermen.
“Most of the local catch goes to wholesalers — you put it on the dock, he comes and picks it up, and a week later he pays you. There’s only one guy in town that buys urchin, for example, so I take his price or I don’t,” Halmay says. “We have about half a dozen big wholesalers here in San Diego, and 20 years ago that’s where pretty much all the fish went. Some guys now, like with rockfish, are having better success shipping overseas. But the local price has been stagnant for a long time...say, a buck seventy-five a pound. When the boats can bring a portion of their catch here and sell it for $3.99 a pound, it’s still cheaper for the consumer, and the fishermen are able to make a better living.”
From boat to ice bin
Why not just take the catch to existing farmers’ markets, especially with so many of them already operating?
“Zach [Roach, another regular market vendor] and my son started selling off the boat. Then they went to farmers’ markets first and that turned out to be too hard — they’d have to be at different markets six days a week rather than on the boat to sell what they can sell in a day here,” Halmay continues. “And there are a lot of middlemen who bought fish and take it out [to farmers’ markets], but they aren’t fishermen. It’s hard to go and have a booth right next to a guy claiming to be a fisherman and you know he’s not — he bought those fish from whatever was being discarded by the wholesalers and took it to the farmers’ markets.”
But beyond the pure commercial aspect of the market, it’s gained attention from the scientific community for getting fishermen to do something conservationists have tried for years to do with limited success — encourage fishing boats to harvest a diverse array of species, rather than target only the highest-priced, often overfished populations.
Elly Brown is coordinator for the San Diego Food System Alliance. The group advocates for food-system changes through lobbying for and participating in crafting public policy, offering support for urban agriculture, better food access for those in need, and new business models like the fishermen’s market. During a celebration of the passage of the Pacific-to-Plate law, Brown says, “There’s a tremendous amount of food resources available in the county, from the fisheries to craft breweries, small organic farms... It really is a vibrant economy, and we want to nurture that. We want to build a model of ‘good food’ in San Diego that can be used across the nation.”
Adds Theresa Talley, a coastal specialist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, “We’re trying to encourage consumers to be more adventurous — stray away from your salmon, go down to the docks and try something new. Broaden your choices. Go home with a whole fish, try a new recipe.
“The underlying philosophy is that each of us, in our role along the supply chain, has the power to contribute to a sustainable seafood system. That includes increasing the persistence of natural resources and the livelihoods of those that bring us seafood, and the availability of fair and healthy food for everyone.”
Through the course of operating the market, Halmay says he and others have not only developed a new-found sense of cooperation, they’ve learned a lot about the demands of the local marketplace. It turns out consumer demand for some fish is a lot higher than the prices offered by wholesale buyers seem to indicate.
“The guys that are here regularly are starting to talk to one another,” Halmay continues. “One will say, ‘I’m going out for black cod,’ and then another will say, ‘Then I’ll go after rockfish.’ They’re figuring out how to bring in different fish so they’ll sell it all. It’s not a commandment, like, ‘Thou shalt collaborate,’ it’s that we’re not bringing in anyone else until the guys here are successful, and we’re adding more variety to the market.
“We’ve got a lot of customers that, for example, are asking for mackerel. Normally, if you see mackerel on your way in you wouldn’t even stop to fish for ’em, since mackerel goes for 40 cents a pound, wholesale. But some of our regulars love it, and if you can sell them for three bucks, then you make a stop and pick up a couple hundred pounds and sell every bit of it. So, it’s not only cooperation in broadening our target species, it’s finding those that we otherwise wouldn’t even catch.
“We call it portfolio fishing — when you buy stocks, you create a portfolio so in case one goes down you’ve got others that may go up. Our strategy is to diversify our market, and that should be a strategy throughout fishing. Let’s have a whole bunch of different fisheries so that if we don’t have a solid population of one thing, we can shift to something else. Then we’ll always have something to go fish without needing to pile onto one species.”
I stop Halmay to ask about what, if any, role the science of sustainable fishing plays in coordinating the variety of catch from a boat captain’s perspective.
“You ask if it’s a scientific question — it’s been made science but it shouldn’t be,” he’s quick to reply. “It should be the consumers and the fishermen figuring out how to do this. And we’re talking local consumers — we’re not going to bring in 100 tons of anything because we’re going to bring in what locals can buy, which naturally means you’re harvesting less.
“You can’t talk to the fishermen because they’re biased, and we always tend to leave out the consumer. The seafood consumer has been left out of this conversation. We’d have never thought the mackerel would be a big seller but there’s a demand there, and taking boats off the species that suppliers tell us through their pricing is more profitable is going to be better for the fishery in the long run.”
We conclude with a lament about youth in longtime fishing families, as well as younger consumers, being drawn away from life at sea and a seafood diet. He’s hopeful that the growth of the Tuna Harbor market, and the introduction of others in the coming months, will revitalize the trade.
“The part that’s missing here is the family. You can’t have a fishery with a bunch of 60- and 70-year-old men. You’ve got to bring in the next generation, and a lot of them are coming into the business through working the booths, dealing with the customers, and seeing what a demand there is in the local market. We’re trying to show them that fishing isn’t just a fun way to make a living; you can actually turn a profit, too.”