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Tuna Harbor fish market celebrates city’s fishing heritage, local catch

Johnny Lawson of Johnny’s Fish holds up a sheepshead fish while explaining how the fish uses its specialized teeth to eat armoured prey such as echinoderms, barnacles, clams, crabs and oysters.
Johnny Lawson of Johnny’s Fish holds up a sheepshead fish while explaining how the fish uses its specialized teeth to eat armoured prey such as echinoderms, barnacles, clams, crabs and oysters. Saturday’s Tuna Harbor Fishermen’s Festival, an open-air dockside seafood market, showcased the local tuna industry and sustainable seafood.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

The Tuna Harbor Fishermen’s Festival brings together fish, consumers and commercial fisherman to promote the local catch and sustainable practices.

It started as an idea among scientists, fishermen and sustainable food activists: find a way to connect San Diego residents with the city’s rich maritime fishing heritage, create interest in the diversity of local fish, and help out the local commercial fishing industry.

From that idea five years ago the downtown Tuna Harbor Dockside Market was born. Every Saturday morning rain or shine, hundreds of people line up before 8 a.m. to buy fresh fish caught by local fishermen and off-loaded from their boats to stalls arrayed along the Tuna Harbor pier.

On Saturday hundreds of people showed up for the annual Tuna Harbor Fishermen’s Festival, an event that enhances the weekly fish market with educational exhibits, food prepared by chefs, and a touch tank of crabs and sea urchins. Held during the Port of San Diego’s annual maritime month in May, the festival seeks to promote local fishing and connect consumers with the people who catch and produce their seafood.

“This is a way to connect people to the source,” said Nina Venuti, a researcher with California Sea Grant, a group that’s a collaborative between the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state of California and a variety of universities up and down the state.

It’s also a way to get people thinking of San Diego commercial fishing as more than tuna, she said. Once known as the tuna capital of the world, the city’s tuna fleet has suffered a decline. But the market has been a boost to local commercial fishermen who pitch pop-up tents and sell a variety of other fish — rockfish, urchin, sand dabs.

“One of the challenges to achieving a more robust local seafood system is that there’s a lack of awareness of the diversity of local seafood,” said Venuti.

Getting the market established in the first place was a bit of a challenge. At the time, in 2013, there was no law or regulation that permitted open air seafood markets unlike their terrestrial counterpart, the now ubiquitous farmers markets sprinkled throughout urban neighborhoods. With support from local politicians, then-Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego sponsored a measure — the “Pacific to Plate” bill — that created a permitting process, allowed commercial fishermen to operate a market as a food facility, and clean and cut fish on site.

The first market was held in August 2014, and some 1,300 people showed up, said Peter Halmay, a sea urchin diver and a director of the dockside market. Now at least 500 people come through the market, which stays open until 1 p.m. Fishermen set the price for the catch, as well as answer questions and give suggestions on how to cook the food, he said.

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Eric Tapia of Three Boys bags rock fish for a waiting customer at the Tuna Harbor Fisherman's Festival Saturday.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for the community, for the fishermen,” he said. “It’s good for everyone.” The market has benefited from the increasing interest in sustainable food and using local food sources that spawned the Farm to Table movement on land and what Halmay likes to call the “boat to throat” equivalent at sea.

From three fishermen setting up booths that first day in 2014, the market now attracts between 25 and 30 commercial fishermen, Halmay said.

For longtime commercial fisherman Dave Haworth, the weekly market gives consumers a glimpse into his industry. On Saturday people crowded around the “Kaylee H” boat owned by Haworth and watched as the crew cleaned and prepared all manner of fish — tuna, opah and more.

“For me it’s the experience we give people,” he said. “And it helps our business. It brings some light to our industry and what we do.”