Fifteen minutes before the makeshift market would open, the line on the narrow dock in Tuna Harbor was jammed. Forget any ideas of maintaining personal space. It’s a regular Saturday morning crush for live rock crabs and sea urchins, trap-caught sablefish, bright-eyed red vermillion rockfish and tasty California halibut.

Zack Roach and Luke Halmay work with 10 other commercial fishermen to sell seasonal, locally-caught seafood off Roach’s father’s boat docked in the harbor — a rock’s skip away from the U.S.S. Midway Museum. Using traps, nets, diving or hook and line, San Diego’s commercial fishermen can bring in 28 different species throughout the year. But what these fishermen don’t have is a fresh seafood market of their own.

It isn’t for lack of trying.

They formed Tuna Harbor Dockside Market LLC last June, but since then, approval to move those seafood sales off the boat and onto land has been, well, skunked.

Roach and Peter Halmay, Luke’s father and president of the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group, started treading water last year when they met with the County Department of Environmental Health, the agency tasked with ensuring food operators comply with public health and safety rules. Officials there sent them to the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, saying they needed to apply for a farmer’s market permit. There was just one problem with that: They’re not farmers.

“They don’t consider a fish market a farmer’s market, and a farmer’s market is one of the only things you can get permitted to have on a regular basis,” Roach said. “A temporary permit would only allow us to sell four times a year.” Not an ideal scenario for someone trying to establish a thriving market.

“The irony is, we can sell at a farmer’s market, but we can’t establish ourselves as a farmer’s market.”

So why not compromise and just sell seafood through a handful of the more than 50 existing local farmer’s markets?

Roach says it’s simply not cost effective. The costs involved with trucking a highly perishable product like fresh fish to the market, including mountains of ice and long vending hours made it clear: Selling directly off the boat was more profitable with far less food waste. Fish that couldn’t be sold directly to customers could still be sent to the wholesale market. And for eaters willing to make the effort to snag the city’s freshest fish, harborside sales also mean those valued customers are rewarded with a knock-your-socks-off view of one of San Diego’s last two working commercial fishing docks.

There are other pluses. Having their own dedicated market location in the harbor means fishermen who sell directly consumers will get a better price-per-pound than they would at the wholesale market. It’s a similar story you hear from local farmers who vend at farmers markets. The premium price they receive helps keep them afloat.

The difference here is there are far fewer commercial fishermen left. Despite San Diego’s long history of a thriving industry, the region is down to just about 130 remaining commercial fishers (not counting long-range tuna boats who call San Diego home). Peter Halmay says as recently as 1986, that number was closer to 300.

Gig Conaughton, spokesman for the county, says these fishermen do have options, although all of them require that they find a place or sponsor who will allow them to operate.

“They can operate as a fish market inside a closed building. They can operate mobile facilities like food trucks. They can piggy-back onto an existing farmer’s market to sell fish, or invite farmers to join them in creating a farmer’s market that would allow them to sell their fish,” Conaughton said.

And while the fishermen’s group plans on partnering with Acacia Pacific Aquaculture, who will be selling seaweeds and other marine products, its main focus is on local wild-caught fish. That means state regulations wouldn’t allow the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market to operate alone as a certified farmer’s market, unless the fish sold were “grown in controlled conditions,” Conaughton said. In other words: farmed fish.

Giving the People What They Want

There’s a clear demand for fresh, locally-caught seafood in San Diego.

Theresa Sinicrope Talley, California Sea Grant coastal specialist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, launched an ongoing Dockside Market Feasibility Study in 2013, and found that most of the 142 participants surveyed were willing to drive 15 to 30 minutes to buy seafood directly from a fisherman, and were willing to pay more for it — especially for popular local species like yellowtail, bluefin tuna, sablefish and swordfish.

Survey participants also told Talley they’d be willing to try unfamiliar seafood if offered. While that might not sound especially noteworthy, it is. There’s a reason shrimp, canned tuna and salmon have had a lock on the top three slots on the National Fisheries Institute’s Top 10 Consumed Seafoods list since 2004. Americans, even coastal ones, aren’t especially adventurous when in comes to fish, and most of us fall short of consuming the 8 to 12 ounces of seafood per week recommended in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Adventurous eaters, take note: Lesser-known species that might be found at future fishermen’s market include sea urchin, sardines, mackerel, sea bass, thresher shark, sand dabs, turban snails, zuzi crabs and sea cucumber — some of which may come to market as incidental catches, instead of being tossed overboard.

“If people would be willing to buy these underappreciated, low-on-the-food-web species, then this could be done wisely,” Talley said. “If we’re more flexible in our tastes, and have more diversity in the food web, our fisheries would diversify too, and we’d have a stable supply.”

But even Talley’s market study confirming the demand for a local seafood market hasn’t been enough to net these fishermen one of their own.

“If you talk to anyone, they’ll say we’re all for this, but so far, these guys are stuck,” Talley said. “There’s no category for them yet, and everyone is afraid to venture out there and give them what they need.”

And despite the Port of San Diego’s 2009 Commercial Fisheries Revitalization Plan, meant to enhance the local commercial fishing industry, the group of fishermen hasn’t found much help there either.

“We let the port know what we wanted to do, but never heard back from them,” Roach said. “About four months ago, Pete Flournoy [an attorney working with the group] met with them again and did the whole proposal over again. This time they seemed more interested, but wanted to know exactly where the market would go.”

Roach said ideally the future Tuna Harbor Dockside Market would be located on an off-loading dock that wouldn’t impede the walkway, but the space they’d been eyeing is part of wholesaler Chesapeake Fish Company’s lease.

“The dock is rarely in use, and people can still see the boats, but now they’re telling us — I don’t know what the reasons are — that it might not be in the best interest for Chesapeake [to sublease],” Roach said.

The group is now trying to get set up as a member of the port, which would allow them to use a public dock just south of Chesapeake’s dock.

Jim Hutzelman, acting director of marketing and communications for the Port of San Diego, told Voice of San Diego the dock is known as Fish Harbor Pier, and is the port’s preferred location for a future market.

Trying to agree on a location for the market hasn’t been the only delay. Hutzelman says a change in personnel also played a role.

“We had a person in our department who was working with the fishermen who isn’t with the port anymore, and because of that departure, we lost a little bit of time,” he said. “We’ve received from the fishermen a description of what they want to do. If their requirement for a location needs to be settled, we believe that we can provide that at Fish Harbor Pier. We’re very close.”

Once certain guidelines – proof of insurance, indemnification language, ensuring public access won’t be impeded – are met, Hutzelman says the port would be able to issue the group the permit they need to get their market up and running. He declined to indicate an exact date on when that could happen.

“It’s fairly simple once we’ve agreed to the guidelines,” he said.

That all-important nod from the port would put the fishermen on their way.

“If the port says yes, that they can sell on land on port property, the fishermen would then have to come to DEH (the Department of Environmental Health) and get a temporary food facility permit, one for the central organizer and one for each one that wanted their own booth,” Conaughton said.

Hutzelman sounded committed to making it work.

“We’re really happy about the opportunity to help revitalize the local fishing industry, and the possibilities for making an exciting return of commercial fishing,” he said. “It makes for a vibrant waterfront.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her

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