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.
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.”