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Local Fishermen Land the Big One: a Dockside Market

Long caught in a regulatory gray zone, a group of commercial fisherman finally have permits to open San Diego’s Tuna Harbor Dockside Market.

It’s a far cry from Pike’s Place Market — Seattle’s bustling, fish-throwing seafood mecca — but buying local rockfish, sea urchin, crabs and more directly from San Diego fishermen is about to get a whole lot easier.

Less than one month after we wrote about a group of local commercial fishermen’s struggle to secure a seafood market of their own, County Supervisor Greg Cox and Unified Port of San Diego Chairman Bob Nelson announced Wednesday that permits have been issued, and San Diego’s Tuna Harbor Dockside Market will open for business on Fish Harbor Pier Aug. 2.

Photo by Clare Leschin-Hoar

Photo by Clare Leschin-Hoar

“For about a year they told us it couldn’t be done,” said Peter Halmay, a local sea urchin diver who’s president of the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group. “And then we met with Supervisor Cox and the chairman from the Port, and within two weeks it was done.”

As a workaround, Halmay and others have been selling their catches off a boat docked in the harbor.

Cox, wearing his best fish-themed tie, managed to work an impressive number of fish puns into the announcement, including “casting a long reel” “hoping to get a big catch” and “we landed a whopper.”

In addition to helping the fishermen secure a permanent home, Cox said he was also prompted by the health benefits a fresh local seafood market will provide to San Diego residents. Americans eat less than 15 pounds of seafood a year (compared with nearly 70 pounds of poultry, and 100 pounds of beef), and a recent FDA/EPA announcement encouraged pregnant women to quadruple the amount of seafood they consume. Cox says the new fish market will help increase seafood consumption, bolstering the county’s LiveWell San Diego initiative.

Part of the problem was that the fishermen fell in a regulatory crack. They couldn’t be classified as a farmers market under current regulations, which meant they were unable to get the permits they needed from the County Department of Environmental Health, the agency responsible for ensuring food operators comply with public health and safety rules. But for now, those details have been worked out.

“As of Friday, the Port has issued permits to begin operation,” said Nelson. “So with permits issued by the county and permits issued by the Port of San Diego, we’re ready to start this.”

Cox will present a proposal to promote the market at the July 29 the Board of Supervisors meeting, where he’ll ask the board to work closely with the Port District to support the market, to direct the Department of Environmental Health to continue to work with the fishermen to secure a long-term permit and to report back in 180 days with any state-wide legislative recommendations.

“San Diego used to be the tuna capital of the world,” said Cox. “The number of commercial fishermen in the region has dropped drastically. It’s 40 percent of what it was 30 years ago, and whatever we can do to help them, we should be doing.”

Fisherman Zack Roach Jr. said he’s surprised at how quickly the market is coming together, and will be ready with plenty of fish for opening day.

“It’s speed-rocketing through. It’s awesome,” said Roach.

For Halmay, establishing a dockside market isn’t just about finding another venue to market locally caught fish.

“We think it’s not only important to sell fish, but to sell the idea that fishing exists in San Diego and it’s going to thrive.”

Correction: The Live Well San Diego initiative is a countywide program, not a city program.

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