As a fisherman, being able to sell your fish directly to consumers seems like common sense. But in California, that was nearly impossible until last year.
Buying local fish isn’t only about supporting California fishermen; it’s also about supporting our well-managed fisheries.
“You could have food trucks and farmers markets but there was nothing for fishermen,” Theresa Sinicrope Talley, a coastal specialist with California Sea Grant at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography says.
Previously, fishermen could only sell their catch off the boats or at local farmer’s markets. While places like Dory Fleet in Newport and Ventura Harbor’s Saturday Fisherman’s Market allow fishermen-to-consumer transactions, fishermen do not maintain full ownership of those facilities.
So when longtime San Diego fisherman Pete Halmay wanted to set up a weekly market for him and his buddies, he realized that the laws made it difficult for them to mobilize and sell their catch. Also, heavy restrictions impeded them from butchering and cleaning the fish on-site.
“I thought maybe I’m stupid. Maybe I don’t understand bureaucracy,” he says. He gave Talley a call and his suspicions were confirmed.
“It was a problem with the state food code,” Talley says.
Talley and Halmay brought it up to the attention of local lawmakers and in 2015, the Pacific to Plate bill (AB 226) was signed by California Governor Jerry Brown. AB 226 streamlines the operation of direct, local fishermen’s markets in California. Fishermen's markets in California can now operate as food facilities, vendors can clean their fish for direct sale, and multiple fishermen are allowed to organize a market under a single permit.
In San Diego, the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market was born out of this legislation. In its first months, the market averaged 350 customers and 1.1 tons of seafood sold each week, generating about $15,000 in direct sales.
“We usually have at least six to eight booths and maybe 20 fishermen,” Halmay says.
On a Saturday morning at 9 a.m., nearly all of the California spiny lobsters and sea urchins are sold out at Halmay’s booth. The market opened up just an hour ago and the lines, populated mainly by Filipinos, are impressively long. There’s whole swordfish, a bit of squid, cuts of tuna, and thornyheads. The rockfish supply was cleaned out by enthusiastic customers before I got there.
“When the market opens at 8 a.m., it’s mostly Filipino and other Asian groups like Taiwanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese,” Talley says. “By 10:30 a.m., it’s more white, downtown residents coming in with their lattes. They are usually just browsing.”
This makes sense: for Asian groups, fresh seafood is a cultural priority and the species of fish doesn’t so much matter as long as the cut is fresh.
For those who aren’t as fish savvy or just hungry, there’s a stand at the market called Loaf And Fish that offers fish sandwiches and tacos. The stand is a gateway into the world of California local species and it’s owned by Jolene Fukushima, the wife of local fisherman Kelly Fukushima. Today, swordfish and mako shark are on the menu.
“Eating [California seafood] is like being a wine or beer connoisseur,” she says. “We can close our eyes and tell you what it is.”
Still for these fishermen and their families, the market is not their primary source of income. Instead, it’s a way for them to be connected with the community and inspire a new generation of fishermen.
“We’re trying to save the fishing industry,” Halmay says. “There’s been a huge decline in fishermen in California. If you saw that decline in the fish stock, you’d say there’s a huge problem. So that’s where we are now. We need to bring in young people. We need to rebuild fishermen.”
Decline in fishermen has been in part due to increasing regulation. California has more protected waters than any other state in the continental United States. Marine reserves and fishing rules have been enacted to preserve local waters from being overfished.
No doubt, overfishing is a worldwide problem; around 90% of the world’s stocks are now fully or overfished. Yet while United States fisheries are some of the best managed in the world, we import more than 90% of our seafood, often from countries with few regulations.
“Overfishing has stopped in the Eastern Pacific. It doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “What’s ridiculous is the greenhouse effect of putting a fish on a plane and putting it here.”
While places like the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market are trying to shift that balance, whether or not those statistics will change is entirely up to the consumers. According to Talley, early analysis has shown an increase in demand for local fish.
“The market drew in more boats and local suppliers like Catalina Offshore Products have actually seen an uptick in sales,” she says. “It’s bringing forward awareness of what eating local means.”
Talley hopes the legislation will inspire more markets like Tuna Harbor Dockside throughout California, although she is yet to see that happen.
“Just getting fishermen to organize among themselves is a challenge,” she says. “In California, a lot of the operations are small so there’s not necessarily a fisherman’s co-op or somebody helping to organize among them. A second barrier is that we need to have a place to have the market so getting permission from local ports or the local government to operate is another barrier.”
But buying local fish isn’t only about supporting California fishermen; it’s also about supporting our well-managed fisheries.
“There’s this idea that there’s not enough fish in the sea,” Talley says. “But I think there are a lot of species in emerging fisheries that we should check out. If people are willing to diversify their diet and eat less amounts of more things, there may be enough fish in the sea.”
Top photo: Clarissa Wei