The San Diego Unified Port District is bananas. And cars. And fertilizer. San Diego’s port isn’t as big or bustling as the one in Los Angeles, but the import industry here has found its niche in a mishmash of things that might seem weird to group together.

More than 1.6 million tons of fruit and metal and chemicals (and more) will be hauled into the port by the end of fiscal year 2013. With the growth of these imports comes jobs for skilled laborers, said Joel Valenzuela, the port’s maritime director.

“We’re not just trying to make money for the port,” Valenzuela said. “We’re trying to create jobs for the region. We’re trying to help create a diverse San Diego economy.”

The port could provide jobs for people who want a shot at decent wages and benefits, but who may not have the training to work in the booming tech sector, Valenzuela said.

And from the looks of it, the pay is good. Union dockworkers in San Diego made an average income of more than $101,000 last year — expenses included — according to the Pacific Maritime Association, a trade group.

But it remains to be seen whether the port’s specialized cargo can boost the economy as much as advocates, like former Mayor Bob Filner, have said it will. About 57,000 people are working around the port now, and they’re basically doing two big things: carefully removing cargo to minimize damage and adding value by repairing and customizing imports that come in.

Here’s what’s coming in and out of the port:


Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

A huge portion of the port’s commerce is bananas — Dole bananas, to be specific.

Dole brings 40-foot, refrigerated containers in on a boat and plugs them in to keep the produce from spoiling. There were 475 of those containers at the 10th Avenue terminal in San Diego when I floated by on a boat tour led by Valenzuela.

The port receives about 50,000 of these containers a year. If you were to load all the fruit and vegetables on a scale, they would weigh in at 950 million short tons. And bananas are the biggest part of the haul, a Dole spokesman said.

When stores need Dole products on their shelves, the company can put the containers on trucks or trains and send them up and down the West Coast.

The company’s fruit imports from Latin America are expected to grow by 50 percent in San Diego after its new, bigger ships start making calls in 2015, a Dole spokesman said.

Norwegian Fertilizer

Craploads of manmade fertilizer from Norway are coming into the port to help San Diego farmers grow crops in our dry, rain-deprived county.

The fertilizer is made by a company called Yara — which also specializes in explosives — and is brought here by a company called Grieg Star.

This is a common relationship in the shipping industry: A private company needs to get its product to another country, so it hires another company to bring it over.

Once it gets here, the stevedores step in. Those are the companies that hire the union guys who unload the ships.

Ships, Trains and Automobiles

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

The National City terminal is about a fifth of the 10th Avenue terminal’s size, but its shallow water is just the right depth for something called a ro-ro boat.

Ro-ro is shorthand for roll-on, roll-off – an easy way to get wheeled cargo, like cars and trucks, off of boats and on to roads.

About one out of every 10 imported vehicles in the United States comes through the National City terminal, and a company called Pasha Automotive Services helps bring them in.

Back in the early ’90s, Pasha imported about 30,000 vehicles into San Diego a year. Now, the terminal is the biggest auto-processing operation on the West Coast, with more than 350,000 vehicles a year.

Valenzuela sees this as one of the port’s big success stories. And he said he expects that success to keep growing.

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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