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San Diego’s Fishing Community Pivots to Stay Afloat

The weekly Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is implementing new guidelines

Photo courtesy of Calvin Pedroli

The COVID-19 shutdown of many of the city’s restaurants has left much of San Diego’s commercial fishing fleet reeling, and right now they’re doing everything they can to stay afloat including shifting the way they’re selling fish at the weekly Tuna Harbor Dockside Market (598 Harbor Lane), which has remained open as an essential business.

Starting today at 5 p.m., San Diegans looking to add fresh seafood to their meals will be able to access an online store to place pre-orders for locally caught seafood that will be portioned and ready for pickup at the outdoor market between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday. To test out the new pickup system, the variety available online will be limited to finfish like ahi tuna and opah plus sea urchins, crabs and spot prawns. The goal is to spread out the number of shoppers coming to the market at the same time.

Customers will also be able to purchase fish from the market during its normal hours of 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. under expanded protective guidelines: An extended 12-foot social distancing designation will be in place for those waiting to enter the market; there will be strict limits on the number of people (including staff) who will be allowed on the pier at one time; and customers are being asked to wear a face mask while shopping at the market.

“The commercial fishing fleet has always provided food for people and we’re still here,” says commercial fisherman Kelly Fukushima. “We want them to know they can rely on us to put food on people’s tables.”

The crisis has been hard on local fishers. Commercial fishermen David Haworth and his son, Nick, had to scramble when wholesalers started calling them to say they could no longer sell their catch amid widespread restaurant closures. Home deliveries helped move the load of fish, but the Haworths will also be relying on customers who shop at the weekly market. “It’s been really scary,” says Haworth. “But we’ve been doing the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market for six years now, so I decided to go to the bare minimum price so consumers could get a good deal and I could move the fish.”

Haworth’s vessel, the Pacific Horizon will be offering wahoo, ono, opah, yellowfin, and big eye tunas for $10 a pound. “I’m trying to keep the price this low while people are out of a job. It’s a break-even-to-keep-people-working kind of thing until people get back on their feet,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Tuna Harbor Dockside Market

Fishermen like Tanner Saraspe have also pivoted to direct sales and home delivery to get through the crisis. Saraspe normally sells at the weekly market but stopped because of worries of COVID-19 exposure for close family members that fall into the high-risk category. At the same time, her direct sales to over 100 San Diego restaurants began drying up, leaving her scrambling to find customers able to purchase the high-end spot prawns, bluefin tuna and rock crab her family fishes for.

“At the beginning, everyone was rushing to the stores to buy everything they could, especially protein,” she said. So she tapped into her robust following of customers on Instagram and Facebook, and began offering “no contact, boat-to-doorstep delivery”. The move helped and is one she’ll continue lean on. This week Saraspe will be selling rod-and-reel-caught bluefin tuna filets for $15 a pound and spot prawns for $20 a pound—the lowest prices she’s ever offered. “I want customers to realize we’re trying to make this work for everyone,” she says.

Annemarie Brown Lorenz, partner of The Fishery in Pacific Beach says they’re still able to buy from a handful of local fishermen. The restaurant’s new chef Mike Reidy has been offering “Fishery Meals” that include local fish like halibut or spot prawns, along with sauces and sides like rice, vegetables. The cook-at-home meal for two runs $50 and Brown Lorenz says she hopes they can continue until the crisis passes.

“San Diego was founded on fishermen. My dad was a local fisherman. They’re at the heart and soul of what we do here,” she says. “If the local fishermen went under, I don’t even want to know what that would look like.”