On the morning of March 18, Shane Slaughter loaded groceries, bait, and other provisions into his pickup truck. He was preparing for a week-long trip to the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, where he and another fisherman harvest spot prawns on Slaughter’s 42-foot boat.
But something was off; they weren’t receiving text messages from the wholesalers who buy their coveted crustaceans, which end up in sushi bars and high-end restaurants throughout California.
“It was eerily quiet,” Slaughter said. “Our product is typically in super-high demand, but we weren’t hearing back from people we normally hear back from in seconds.”
With $400 worth of bait thawing in the cooler, the fishermen looked online to discover that restaurants throughout the state had been ordered to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some restaurants were still offering takeout and delivery, but Slaughter knew his prawns—like many sea critters—weren’t well-suited for the to-go menu.
“It’s not something you put in a Styrofoam box and send out the door,” he said. “So once the restaurants stopped buying, the wholesalers pretty much evaporated.”
After weighing their options, the fishermen divvied up the groceries and went home to their families, who were confused to see them back so soon.
Selling Direct to Consumers
The upheaval of the seafood supply chain has affected fishing communities in coastal areas across the United States. Plummeting demand from distributors has forced some small-scale fishermen off the water completely, while the owners of larger vessels have either curtailed operations or laid off crews.
The Commerce Department recently allocated $300 million in CARES Act funding to the seafood sector to boost the nation’s fishing industry—and roughly $18 million is earmarked for California fisheries—but the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is still determining how the money will be distributed, leaving fishermen to fend for themselves.
In San Diego, a beacon of stability has emerged from the maelstrom. While most fishermen previously sold the majority of their catch to wholesalers and restaurants, many have begun selling directly to consumers at local outlets, such as the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, an open-air event held every Saturday on the downtown bayfront.
Launched in 2014, the fishermen’s market runs a little differently these days. “Keep One Fathom Apart,” reads a sign at the entrance. “That’s 6 Feet, For You Land Lovers.”
Social-distancing requirements have led the organizers to limit capacity on the pier, creating long lines that sometimes stretch hundreds of yards along the waterfront. Last week, some patrons shuffled between tape marks for two hours before reaching the dock, where vendors sold their catch under collapsible awnings.
Bigeye tuna, black cod, and white seabass lay on ice-covered tables. Shoppers could hand-pick their harvest, as long as they kept their hands to themselves. “Just point to what you want and I can get it for you, hon,” explained a gloved woman, speaking through her cloth mask.
Beyond finfish, there were box crab, sea urchin, and Slaughter’s spot prawns, which swam in a small display tank. Slaughter, who recently began selling his prawns in person, has been marketing the highly regulated species for $22 per pound. That’s more than he would get from a wholesaler, but less than the usual retail price at specialty supermarkets, he said. Many of the fishermen have reduced their prices, which—paired with the scarcity of certain seafood and soaring meat prices in stores—has fueled a surge in public interest.
“People say, ‘Oh, this is my first time here, I didn’t know this existed,’” said Nicole Ann Glawson, who sells sheephead and crab that were caught by her husband on a vessel named, incidentally, the Nicole Ann. “We’re probably making about half of what we normally make, but it’s bringing new clientele and creating new markets, which is a positive.”
With the market for his regular target-species slowing, Johnny Glawson has shifted his focus to bonito, a migratory species that usually nets less than $2 per pound from distributors, he said. The Glawsons were getting $5 per pound that Saturday for whole bonito that were caught the previous day.
“We get more money here, and we’re selling directly to the people,” he said, as a nearby deckhand described cooking methods to a curious customer. “They’re getting fresher fish, that’s for sure.”
For shoppers—some of whom lost their jobs because of the pandemic—the prospect of nabbing some high-quality protein at rock-bottom prices was too good to pass up. Amanda Witherspoon lives about 20 miles inland, but decided to make the drive after seeing a friend’s social media post showing “sushi-grade ahi” going for $10 a pound, she said.
“It’s usually a little bit pricier than what I would be able to afford,” she said. “But now it’s within my budget, so I figured I’d come down here and support the local fishermen.”
Like Witherspoon, most of the market’s customers were drawn by the allure of ahi, a Hawaiian word that refers to both bigeye and yellowfin tuna. The supercharged swimming machines, which are powered by dense bundles of red muscle, were caught on a longliner owned by David Haworth.
A Large Operation Changes Gears
Helming one of the local fishery’s largest operations, Haworth’s vessels often return from their month-long trips with more than 10 tons of fish, almost all of which used to be offloaded to wholesalers. A portion of his catch has always gone to the market, but now Haworth and company are hawking much larger quantities at “bare minimum” prices, he said. On Saturdays, his 80-foot vessels are often tied to the dock, where customers can watch the crew break down tuna, wahoo, and opah on deck.
“At first it seemed like a total disaster, but the market has really helped us out.”
“At first it seemed like a total disaster, but the market has really helped us out,” Haworth said. “We’re not making a lot of money, but we’re making enough to pay our bills and keep working.”
His son, Nick Haworth, was hundreds of miles offshore when the initial wave of coronavirus cases exploded across the U.S. With a radio on the fritz, the young captain was oblivious to the chaos unfolding at home until he came within 60 miles of the coast.
“When we got TV service, we saw on the news that the stock market had crashed, the state was on lockdown, and restaurants were closing,” Nick Haworth said. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
By the time the boat made landfall, the wholesale market for the 30,000 pounds of fish he was carrying had collapsed. The Haworths managed to sell some of their load to distributors but they were still saddled with several tons of product they never intended to move themselves.
So they started cutting fish. Offering tuna loins on the cheap, the company has not only been selling at the market, but also delivering orders to homes throughout the city and to small-scale purveyors in the Los Angeles area. The younger Haworth said that, having created a local distribution model that has proven as profitable as selling to major wholesalers, the company will keep selling the bulk of its tuna through the new channels, even as wholesale demand begins to rebound.
“Rather than wholesaling our fish around the country, we’re trying to keep it local in San Diego,” Nick Haworth said. “It’s a lot of work but it’s worth it.”
Raising Consumer Awareness About Local Seafood
Peter Halmay, an urchin diver who co-founded the market, worked with state and local lawmakers to craft California’s “Pacific to Plate” bill, which established a permitting process for fishermen to sell directly to consumers on the dock. Noting the benefits of eating fresh, responsibly sourced seafood, Halmay said the market’s most important function is introducing residents to the men and women of the local fleet.
“The market is the only place where most people can actually see fishermen,” Halmay said. “We sell fish, but we’re are also selling the idea of fishing.”
Raising awareness is key to bolstering demand for locally caught species in San Diego, where more than 90 percent of the locally consumed seafood is imported, said Theresa Sinicrope Talley, a coastal specialist with California Sea Grant who has studied seafood availability in the city. Noting the uptick in market attendance, Talley said the pandemic could cause lasting changes in how people shop for seafood.
“The market is the only place where most people can actually see fishermen. We sell fish, but we’re are also selling the idea of fishing.”
“The silver lining could be a fast-track to strengthening these direct marketing ties in the local food system … which could have disproportionate benefits from a social, environmental, and economic standpoint,” she said.
Around 11 a.m., a line of cars begins to form at the foot of Pacific Highway, where Jordyn Kastlunger, 23, distributes seafood to customers who pre-ordered through the Tuna Harbor market’s website. Kastlunger, who fishes for halibut and other species commercially with her father, established the curbside pickup service in the early days of the pandemic. Along with decongesting the line, the new ordering system has helped propel an upsurge in weekly sales.
“I’ve created a monster,” said Kastlunger, who is building the market’s sizable social media following in addition to helping manage its day-to-day operations. “We had like a hundred orders the first week. Now we’re up to 275.”
Fishermen in cities from Newport Beach to Half Moon Bay have replicated the Tuna Harbor model in recent years, creating markets that have buoyed them during the pandemic. But San Diego’s market has enabled its fleet to endure the breakdown better than others, said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
“The storm has not been as brutal for San Diego as it has been elsewhere,” Conroy said.
For Distributors, An Uncertain Course
In late May, San Diego County gave restaurants the go-ahead to reopen if they complied with social-distancing requirements and other safety protocols. The decision was welcome news to the region’s distributors, who buy fish from fishermen and sell it to restaurants and grocers.
San Diego Seafood, Inc., which at times last year had up to 10 trucks out for delivery, was forced to close its doors temporarily in mid-March. Meanwhile Pacific Shellfish Seafood Co. has been distributing to a few local grocers using a “skeleton crew” after laying off nearly all of its 70 employees, said general manager Annemarie Brown.
In one day, Catalina Offshore Products’ wholesale business dropped 80 percent, forcing owner Dave Rudie to let go of nearly half his workforce. Catalina survived by increasing retail sales at its on-site fish market, which has seen a steep hike in demand.
On June 1, as dozens of restaurants opened with limited capacity, San Diego Seafood was back on the road, said owner Kathy Strangman. But the wholesalers said restaurant owners are reluctant to make large orders because they can’t predict the level of demand from diners, many of whom may be wary of risking infection. Another unknown among local distributers is how the increase in dockside marketing will affect their business models moving forward.
“My crystal ball is a little cloudy,” Rudie said. “It’s hard to forecast more than a day ahead because there’s so much uncertainty now.”
In the 1970s, San Diego boasted one of the world’s largest tuna-fishing fleets, which supported several canneries and thousands of local jobs. But mounting regulations, competition from foreign import markets, and ever-increasing operating costs have caused the local fleet to contract immensely since then. Today, less than 150 commercial vessels operate out of San Diego County. Many of those boats haven’t left the dock since the shutdown began.
To help fishermen who aren’t participating in the market, Halmay is working with local food banks to create a network for distributing fish to families in the area, he said. Fishermen selling at the market have fared relatively well, though they have not been insulated from the impacts of the pandemic.
“We’re struggling,” said Dan Major as he carried a crate of Pacific mackerel across the dock. He poured the small, torpedo-shaped fish on a table, where his wife and daughter were selling them for $5 per pound. Assuming they sold it all, the mackerel would bring in $200.
“That’s for the week,” he said. “That doesn’t go very far.”
Along with devoting more attention to his beekeeping business, Major said his slumping sales would likely force him to sell one, if not two, of his three small boats.
Tommy Gomes, a longtime fixture in the local industry, said San Diego’s fishermen will continue to adapt, as shown by their shift to direct marketing. Standing near the end of the dock, Gomes—whose nickname, “Tommy the Fishmonger,” is a registered trademark—said the crowds at the market suggest a sea change in the public perception of seafood as a luxury item.
“The game is changing right now,” he said. “The general public is coming down here and enjoying the fruits of the fishermen’s labor at a cost that is beneficial to their pocketbook. So, just like the American farmer, the autoworker, and the steelworker, the American fisherman—backbone of the country—they’re gonna bounce back.”
All photos by Mark Armao.