Once hailed as the Tuna Capital of the World, San Diego's fishing industry has enjoyed something of a renaissance since the launch of Tuna Harbor Dockside Market nearly three years ago. Operating year-round, rain or shine, every Saturday from 8 a.m. onwards, crowds line up for dazzlingly fresh, locally-caught seafood at the weekly open-air pop-up fishermen's market just off Harbor Lane near Seaport Village. There, 15 fishermen, including Dan Major, David Haworth and Kelly Fukushima man five pop-up booths selling their catch to between 450 and 550 people each week. Depending on the season, customers can load up on everything from live sea urchin, spot prawn and box crabs to rock cod, opah, halibut and various tuna species.
While its origins stretch back to 2011, when Luke Halmay and Zach Roach Jr. (sons of veteran fishermen Pete Halmay and Zach Roach Sr.) would sell their catch directly off the boat in Tuna Harbor, at that time no permit existed in California allowing fishermen to sell directly to the public. State government officials were petitioned for several years to secure what is now called the "Pacific to Plate" bill. The first of its kind, the bill allows fishermen to organize markets under a single permit where they can sell fresh seafood dockside, with no middlemen markups and not a plastic package in sight. Today, not only has the historic Tuna Harbor become a showcase for local fishermen and the city’s rich heritage as a fishing port, it’s also making the local fishing industry a powerful competitive asset and San Diego a world leader in seafood sustainability.
Market director Pete Halmay, who at 75 years old still regularly dives for sea urchin, says the market has energized direct marketing of local fish to chefs and consumers. "The community is waking up to the idea that a vibrant fishing community exists in San Diego and a wide variety of local and sustainable fish is available. Our ‘chef to fisherman’ connection has also been integral to the market’s success. The market is a powerful marketing tool for fishermen and its greatest success is when the chefs and fishermen take their relationships to the next level".
Thanks to Slow Food and other farm-to-fork movements, the demand for local seafood is on the rise and a growing relationship between the fishermen and a handful of dedicated San Diego chefs has been integral in promoting the market to a wider audience. In the hands of market devotees and chefs Jason McLeod, Rob Ruiz and Juan Carlos Récamier, the freshest Pacific Ocean produce from Tuna Harbor now graces plates at some of the city's best restaurants. "San Diego is now one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world — a huge claim to fame and one which continues the legacy of the city being built and settled by fisherman," says Rob Ruiz, chef and owner of The Land & Water Company. "Tuna Harbor is revolutionizing the way chefs, who could only access local catch through a middleman before, are now able to run their restaurants. Not only is this access essential to keep our culinary scene on par at a national level, it also provides affordable, healthy and nutritious protein to local families".
Local seafood journalist Clare Leschin-Hoar echoes this sentiment. "While we're doing better, Americans still don't eat enough seafood according to official dietary recommendations. And that's a shame, because seafood is one of the healthiest food choices we can make. We're really fortunate here to not only have extraordinarily fresh fish, but that the market offers a wide variety of species. That's important. Shop at Vons or Ralph's, and the fish counters are primarily stocked with shrimp, salmon and tuna, nearly all of it imported from other countries."
For executive chef Jason McLeod, Tuna Harbor means history, and brings soul to the story at Ironside Fish & Oyster, where his menu is updated and printed daily according to what catch is available. "Part of the process is to understand the struggles the fishermen face so that we can be flexible in helping them. One of the biggest issues is not selling the less ‘desirable’ fish cuts. Whether our order is for Ironside or an outside event we'll use anything and everything [the market] has first, and then go from there."
Ceviche House chef and owner Juan Carlos Récamier makes a run each Saturday to stock up on fresh fish including rock cod, mahi mahi and yellowtail for his made-to-order ceviches. "Jason McLeod and Rob Ruiz introduced me to the market — I’m a big fan of their work and strong belief in sourcing fresh locally caught seafood. As a chef and a resident here in San Diego, I want to feel connected to the community. I want to know that the food I'm selling has a more transcendent impact than the bottom line of my business. I want to have an impact in people's lives, through my food, yes, but also through my sourcing practices".
Both McLeod and Récamier echo the sentiment that their relationships with the fishermen go beyond just being customers. "We consider them friends and family first and foremost. It's an honor to be part of their circle, and to feel appreciated for what we do with their catch at our restaurants," they told Eater.
With the Central Embarcadero redevelopment proposal poised to radically redefine San Diego’s waterfront and a potential mixed-use zoning designation for one of the city’s two commercial fishing basins, the future of the market has recently come into question. Twenty-year commercial fisherman and key THDM spokesperson Kelly Fukushima said the mood is cautiously optimistic. "We’re building a really good relationship with the developers who have told us they intend to keep the water-side for commercial fishing use only, however the land-side is still an ongoing discussion at this point". McLeod adds, “There is an amazing opportunity for the new development to showcase something that is such a large part of San Diego history and for them to do the right thing by the fishermen”.
Chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners, Robert ‘Dukie’ Valderrama, told Eater the Port of San Diego champions Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, calling it a must-do, one-of-a-kind local experience that supports local jobs and showcases the hard work of commercial fishermen. Fishing is part of the fabric of our history — it helped make San Diego what it is today and we’re pleased that the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market continues to be popular for residents and visitors seeking fresh-off-the-boat seafood,” he said. “It is our understanding that 1HWY1, the selected developer for the redevelopment of the Central Embarcadero, is working with local fishermen and other stakeholders to build a consensus on how to address commercial fishing within this plan, and we look forward to receiving additional information about their proposal."
For Halmay, a best-case scenario includes a working fishing harbor with upgraded docks, piers, offloading facilities, cold storage, an ice machine, fishermen's market, and dry storage areas all in plain view of San Diegans and tourists so that they can see the entire operation "from boat to throat". For the market to keep afloat, Leschin-Hoar concludes an infusion of more locals willing to stop by on Saturday mornings, open to trying some really delicious fish that maybe they aren't used to seeing every day, is key. "The more San Diegans who get to know their local fish and fishermen, the better".
Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is open to the public every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Those who come hungry can tuck into fresh fish sandwiches and tacos at Loaf And Fish at the end of the pier. Owned and run by Jolene Fukushima, the wife of local fisherman Kelly, the stand’s tasty offerings come stuffed with whatever’s in season, from sea bass to thresher shark.