Throngs of pedestrians stroll past downtown’s Tuna Harbor on a Saturday morning unaware that secluded in the back corner of a large parking lot is the home to San Diego’s only pierside seafood market.
Thanks to prominent signage, the adjacent Top of the Market restaurant is unmistakable on this parcel of blacktop tucked in between Seaport Village and the USS Midway museum. But no such signage alerts pedestrians to the seafood for sale on the dock below. Unsurprisingly, the dock isn’t teeming with buyers.
San Diego is the rare U.S. major coastal city without a dockside seafood market. That’s something diver-turned-fishing-industry-advocate Peter Halmay wants to change.
“We’ve been trying to get a dockside seafood market going for two years now,” Halmay said
VIDEO: Peter Halmay discusses the formation and operation of the Tuna Harbor pierside seafood market.
The energetic Halmay created the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group, uniting most of the region’s approximately 130 commercial fishers. Reeling in a dockside market is the goal. The group wants to capture dollars spent on imported seafood. If successful, it would assist a commercial fishing industry struggling to find its way since the 1980s collapse of San Diego’s tuna industry.
Despite Halmay and his group’s efforts, the possibility of a dockside market remains as murky as the water in San Diego Bay. The reasons include political churn, regulations and a waning interest in fishing.
In March 2013, then-Mayor Bob Filner presented a vision for “reinvigorating” San Diego’s fishing industry. The mayor wanted a market rivaling Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a bustling farmers market specializing in seafood. Now a landmark destination, Pike Place nets $86 million in annual revenue and creates 3,600 jobs, according to a study by the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority.
Filner wanted his Pike Place located at Tuna Harbor, where Halmay operates the pierside market.
Halmay and attorney Peter Flournoy seized on Filner’s proposal, pulling the mayor into their confidence and inviting him on a ride along to see fishers in action. The Carlsbad Aquafarm, San Diego’s only shellfish aquafarm, joined with the duo, providing Halmay with shellfish, such as crab and shrimp to sell at the Saturday pierside seafood market. From that business convergence, the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market LLC formed on June 26, 2013, hoping to quickly convert a dream into capital.
That dream burst after Filner was accused of sexual misconduct. He resigned two months later, leaving the dockside market proposal floundering.
But the vision isn’t iced completely. Newly-elected San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is “generally supportive” of the initiative, said Craig Gustafson, Faulconer’s press secretary and director of media relations.
Halmay, however, isn’t convinced that the vision will become a reality because this continually changing cadre of civil servants causes political allegiances to shift. It happens so often, Halmay says, that he created a term for it: “issue transience.”
“Politicians come and go, but the issues remain,” Halmay said. “Too many of our solutions are four-year based.”
Fortunately for Halmay and his collective, an administrative agency separate from City Hall exists for San Diego’s maritime industry—the San Diego Unified Port District.
The agency is “interested in exploring” a dockside market plan, according to Jim Hutzelman, the Port of San Diego’s manager of business development and recreation services.
“People want fresh fish,” Halmay said. “But they don’t know if they are buying fresh fish because anyone can slap a sticker on a piece of fish and call it local. With our market, people will know their fish is fresh.”
With locations scouted, the Port of San Diego is reviewing land rights. After that, the Port of San Diego, City Hall, and Tuna Harbor Dockside Market will huddle and determine the best fit before discussing financing. A date for that meeting isn’t clear, Hutzelman said.
Even if a location is settled and resources allocated, another tidal wave awaits—the size of the area’s fish stock. It’s a hurdle hindering San Diego from growing a dockside market into Pike Place Southwest, according to California Sea Grant Coastal Specialist Theresa Talley, who has a doctorate in ecology.
“I don’t think our near-shore environment can support a market as big as Pike Place,” Talley said.
“That said, there is room for (market) expansion, if done wisely, as San Diego’s waters offer a great diversity of species, and what is available is some of the most sustainable seafood in the world,” Talley continued.
Sustainability is a hot-button issue for environmental regulators, and California has long been at the forefront for protecting wildlife.
“The U.S., and in particular California, has some of the strictest regulations,” Talley said. “From regulations on the amount of catch, where it can be caught, and the type of gear that can be used, to seafood safety and human rights.”
Halmay is not a stranger to regulation affecting his livelihood. A profitable run selling traditional seafood varieties San Diegans love, such as tilapia and shrimp, stops whenever the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tightens laws protecting dwindling fish stocks.
The environment’s effect on economy
Commercial fishers are often criticized for skirting regulations and overfishing species to the brink of extinction. More than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are fished past the limit for sustainability, according to the World Wildlife Federation.
Halmay said he understands the government must protect threatened species today so that future fishers will have fish to harvest tomorrow.
Still, understanding the science behind conservation doesn’t earn cachet with a lender expecting a fisher to stay current on his or her financial obligations. A fishing boat’s cost is equal to the cost of a small house, monthly slip rentals are commensurate with a family of four’s monthly grocery bill, and fishing equipment must be continually repaired or replaced.
To stay afloat, fishers must attune San Diego’s seafood palate to the fish stocks unburdened by controls: invertebrates, such as sea urchins, and small fish, such as sardines.
VIDEO: Peter Halmay describes sea urchin cuisine.
Talley is optimistic about the market’s ability to educate San Diegans on how area fishers work within the environmental restraints.
“The imports can’t match us,” Talley said. “People need to be aware of what’s available at home, and how good it is for the environment, the economy and our health.”
Effecting that change isn’t easy. It doesn’t help when the U.S. imports in-demand and over-fished seafood from countries with weaker fishing regulations, Halmay said.
Proving both Halmay and Talley’s point, over-fished species comprise up to one-third of U.S. seafood imports, according to a peer-reviewed study in the September 2014 issue of Marine Policy.
Still, seafood lags behind red meat and poultry in U.S. consumer choice.
‘Fish aren’t produce’
Another barrier is a San Diego County licensing stipulation that effectively prevents Halmay’s group from establishing a dockside market. The Certified Producer certificate establishes that safety and sanitation standards are met, much like a restaurant’s Department of Agriculture grade. But since required forms are tailored only to farmers markets, commercial fishers can’t obtain the license.
“We can’t complete the forms because fish aren’t produce, so the health department doesn’t know what to do with us,” Halmay said. “It’s something we need changed.”
Halmay says it’s possible to start a dockside market with the existing form, but only if the market includes produce. Halmay doesn’t want to do that. He wants the market “pure,” so that every sale supports local fishers instead of competing interests.
Until then, local fishers sell seafood only from their boats, without the aid of signage to entice consumers, and hidden from view.
“I did a survey of knowledge last year, and 25 percent of the public didn’t know we have a local fishing industry,” Talley said.
Halmay accepts the challenge of selling seafood in an area as secluded as an underground street, while staying concerned that continued concealment threatens the future of his industry.
“It’s fighting with one arm tied behind your back,” Halmay said. “You can do it, but you’re going to get beat more often.”
This fight already knocked out one seafood farmers market, according to Halmay.
A separate group of fishers not affiliated with the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group opened the Fishermen’s Farmers Market at Driscoll’s Wharf in Point Loma last August. The market ran every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., according to a Blogher article written by Caron Golden.
But an early evening visit to Driscoll’s Wharf on Apr. 9 found empty sidewalks where food booths and seafood consumers once stood.
“They had to close the market because no one knew it was there, and the couple fishermen left didn’t want to do it anymore,” Halmay said.
A Fishermen’s Farmers Market Facebook page remains active, suggesting that the market intends to regain its footing.
The tale of the aging fisher
Only 4 percent of San Diego County’s population are employed as fishers. They are no longer young in the tooth. With few commercial fishers in their twenties, the 73-year-old Halmay says he refers to 60-year-old fishers as “kids.”
But not all commercial fishers are in their twilight years. Peter Halmay’s 24-year-old son, Luke Halmay, is following in his father’s footsteps.
SLIDESHOW: Luke Halmay talking about why he became a commercial fisher.
Flying fish and field trips
Peter Halmay points to the aging fisher as one reason why it’s important to make the occupation visible to San Diegans via a dockside market. But he has something else in mind, too. He wants to use the market as a springboard catapulting commercial fishers into area schools for show-and-tell-type activities designed to entice students into fishing.
“San Diego has flying fish that jump into your boat,” Peter Halmay said. “Years ago, I brought one to a school and let the kids see it. Later, a father calls me up and asks why I lied to his kid. He says, ‘Everyone knows that fish don’t fly. They swim.’”
Education is one of the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group’s goals for the dockside market itself.
“If people can see their fish as really fresh, and learn how to cook it from the fisherman himself, interest will improve,” Luke Halmay said.