Local operators and government officials believe a fresh-seafood market debuting soon on the downtown San Diego waterfront could be a good first step toward restoring what was once a much more vibrant regional fishing economy.
While not yet on the level of Seattle’s Pike Place Market or San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is scheduled to open Aug. 2 on the Embarcadero near Seaport Village and is set to run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday. It will feature fish, crabs, sea urchins and other items caught by local fishermen in San Diego coastal waters.
At press time, the event on the Tuna Harbor fishing pier was expected to have at least three large booths, but that was likely to change as potential vendors continued to make inquiries, according to one of the market’s organizers.
“We’re getting a lot more response than we originally thought,” said local fisherman Zack Roach Jr., a partner in the operating entity known as Tuna Harbor Dockside Market LLC. “We’ve definitely never had anything like this in San Diego.”
A big welcome by customers is also anticipated, Roach said, since the marketplace will be held on one of downtown’s most popular walkways for both tourists and locals, between Seaport Village and the USS Midway Museum.
Supervisors to Discuss Proposal
For years, Roach said, local fishermen have been trying to arrange a public marketplace geared toward seafood, similar to the dozens of regular farmers markets held at locations throughout San Diego County. For the most part, the only local direct sales of seafood to the public take place informally out of fishermen’s boats, lately by operators making use of social media to let customers know about fresh catches.
The path to the new marketplace was started by the county, which issues permits for food-related public events like farmers markets. Earlier this year, County Supervisor Greg Cox approached Bob Nelson, chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners, to explore ways to establish an open-air seafood marketplace at or near Tuna Harbor, which is controlled by the Port of San Diego.
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is the first nonport-organized outdoor seafood market permitted on port-controlled tidelands. At their July 29 meeting, county supervisors are scheduled to discuss a proposal by Cox, calling for the county to “encourage activity that increases accessibility and promotes advantages” of local and fresh food, including fresh-catch seafood.
Cox said the measure fits with existing county initiatives to promote healthy and eco-friendly eating and lifestyle practices, and could also help revive a portion of the waterfront that was once among the nation’s biggest hubs for tuna fishing.
“There’s no reason San Diego can’t have its own open-air, dockside fish market,” Cox said in an emailed statement. “We have a vibrant waterfront, busy fishing fleets, great year-round weather and now a place for this market to flourish.”
Boosting the ‘Blue Economy’
The supervisor said open-air seafood markets could also complement regional efforts to boost what is known as the “blue economy.” Commercial fishing is among 14 water-centric sectors identified as holding good long-term prospects for creating new jobs and other economic benefits for the region.
“This market will help our local fishing industry and our blue economy by allowing fishermen to sell their catch straight to the public,” Cox said. “The market will attract residents to our vibrant, working waterfront and will become a popular, new tourist spot.”
Cox is also looking to make open-air seafood markets a more frequent activity on the waterfront. His proposal calls on county staff to draft a letter to the port district, expressing the county’s support for local commercial fishing and the development of open-air, fresh-catch markets in port-controlled waterfront areas.
The supervisor is also asking county staff to research — and report back within 180 days — on “any appropriate legislative recommendations” necessary to improve California health and safety codes to better accommodate outdoor fresh-seafood markets.
Port Onboard with Reviving Fishing
Port of San Diego spokeswoman Tanya Castaneda said port officials have designated two fishing hubs — Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf —– in their long-term plans to help revitalize the local commercial fishing industry.
The port district authorized a fishermen’s market, operated by a different group of fishermen, which ran for a few weeks between September and December 2013 at Driscoll’s Wharf, a port tenant at Shelter Island. The market operated on Wednesdays with sporadic participation by local fishermen, and port officials are examining ways to bring an open-air market back to that location.
The district last year completed the first phase of about $20 million in planned improvements at Driscoll’s Wharf, a once-buzzing commercial fishing hub that dates back to the 1950s. Those included structural pier upgrades, a new crane, a small-scale ice machine and new signage.
In 2008, the port and the California Coastal Conservancy hired a waterfront planning consultant to create a comprehensive plan to revive commercial fishing locally. The resulting revitalization plan, issued in 2010, called for long-range improvements to Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf, with an expected total cost ranging from $20 million to $32 million.
Port officials also have discussed ways to make the fishing hubs more commercially viable by adding regular entertainment, restaurant, retail and other commercial elements to attract locals and tourists.
San Diego was among the world’s biggest centers for tuna fishing for nearly 50 years, from the 1920s into the late 1970s. The local industry dwindled due to a combination of factors, including market globalization, environmental and climate changes, and federal regulations spurred by longtime practices that resulted in the inadvertent netting of dolphins.
Fishing practices have since been changed, but the U.S. lags behind many countries for production of most types of seafood. Foreign imports currently account for more than 90 percent of seafood consumed domestically, according to the National Science and Technology Council.