“The one commitment I’ll give you is — we’ll never trick you,” Yehudi Gaffen told a crowd of more than 20 commercial fishermen gathered for a meeting at the Hubbs Seaworld Research Institute in mid-March.
“This project,” he said of Seaport, “we’re going to own it. It’s the legacy of me and my partner, and the last thing we want is our key stakeholder to feel we pulled a fast one on you.”
A few grumbles, some head nods.
Though it sounds like the start of a tense relationship, Gaffen’s speech came almost two years into working with San Diego’s fishermen, who have had a hard time trusting the man with grand designs on their home. But what other choice do they have?
“We’re sitting at a poker table,” said longtime urchin diver Pete Halmay.
“This guy’s got billion dollars in his pocket,” he said of Gaffen, “and I have $70.
“I’m going to try to bluff him. How long do you think that bluff will work?
“When somebody’s so much bigger than you are,” he continued, “he pretty much doesn’t even have to listen to you. So the fact that he is listening is a good thing, but then the question is — is he listening, or just checking off a box saying, ‘I’ll listen to the fishermen?’”
San Diego’s 130-odd commercial fishermen are no doubt outmatched — pawns in a billion-dollar game of chess, where their support is important but maybe not essential to Gaffen, who hopes their buy-in will help Seaport pass the regulatory hurdles that are to come at the local and state level.
“It may sound ridiculous,” added fishermen Kelly Fukushima, “but it’s very, very hard for guys that have spent their life on the water, being solitary, to go in front of a giant developer and then deal with the Port of San Diego.
“It’s quite intimidating.”
Throughout more than a dozen meetings, Halmay, Fukushima and their colleagues have laughed with, argued, debated and cursed Gaffen — and each other — while planning out their industry’s future.
There have been moments of levity. At one meeting, Halmay said he’d be OK with a Ferris wheel at Seaport — as long as it’s on the dock.
That way, “we can use it to scoop the fish,” he said.
There have been moments of tension, as well.
“We’ve got a working waterfront,” fisherman Phil Harris told Gaffen at one point. “What are your intentions? We’re not going to give anything up.”
Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf are technically working waterfronts, though they’re far from ideal. Fukushima described Driscoll’s as “an armpit” (while Halmay used a not-fit-for-print description) and a 2009 study found a “number of components” requiring “repair and replacement.” Tuna Harbor’s infrastructure is in better shape than Driscoll’s, though its proximity to downtown makes parking, security and space challenging.
What the fishermen envision is not just new piers but also a place that can service hundreds of boats, carrying a variety of fish, along with supporting infrastructure that enables them to pull it off.
“It’s not just where you tie up,” said Fukushima.
Fishermen need loading, maintenance, offloading, processing, staging, parking, fuel service and marketing. They need ice machines, freezers and dry storage space for their catch. They need room along the docks to mend their nets. Running water and electricity are essentials. Bathrooms and office space would be nice.
“All the different aspects of fishing need to be combined into one area,” he said.
“I guess it’d be comparable to a Costco or a Home Depot.”
A 2010 study estimated Driscoll’s Wharf and Tuna Harbor would need somewhere between $20 million to $32 million to upgrade. The magnitude of infrastructure the two sides have settled on recently will almost certainly cost more.
The fishermen also need someone to pay for all that, which Gaffen says he’s prepared to do in order to make his overall vision for Seaport a success.
Though “there’s always an upper limit when it doesn’t make sense,” he told inewsource.
There’s also inevitable red tape, including permitting, environmental reports and lawsuits.
But there is one thing that unites the group during every meeting. It’s the bright light on the horizon. The shared goal of building a foundation for a commercial fishing renaissance — with San Diego at ground zero.
A big bright light
“The demand for seafood is higher than I’ve ever seen it,” said Fukushima, seated at a table in the Fish Market restaurant in March. He had just ordered the New England clam chowder.
Halmay and commercial fisherman David Haworth ordered salads.
“We didn’t realize how many people are interested,” Haworth said, “and love coming down here on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning and seeing the boats and the fish.”
Since the opening of the fishermen-run Tuna Harbor Dockside Market in 2014, the three men at the table have spent their Saturday mornings on a downtown pier where every fish, crab and cephalopod from Southern California waters is for sale to tourists and locals alike. More than a dozen of their colleagues participate. The city’s politicians, fishermen and the port generally agree that the undertaking — which required a change in state law — has been a success.
It was greatly needed.
Though fishermen are among San Diego’s settlers and the city was economically driven by their product for nearly a century, recent decades have not been kind to them. Reasons range from international competition and regulatory policies down to individual egos, but the result has been an offshoring of an industry.
Canneries and fleets ditched Southern California in the 1970s and ’80s to head further west, where regulations weren’t as strict and operating costs were cheaper. Today, those who remain in San Diego are making do within one of the most heavily regulated locations in the world.
Fukushima sent back his soup.
“I got my New England and my Manhattan confused,” he said.
Even those who don’t eat fish are affected by the economics of it. The living resources sector — which includes fishing, aquaculture, processing and fish markets — employed more than 60,000 people across the country in 2014, paid $2.47 billion in wages and contributed $7.4 billion to the GDP. And that’s during a time when America imports more than 90 percent of its seafood.
The fishermen and Gaffen are viewing San Diego as a potential catalyst for broader change on a regional and state level. An event about the future of Tuna Harbor on April 13 is drawing the executive director of California’s Fish and Game Commission, who wants to learn more about what’s happening in San Diego to gauge whether those efforts can be applied statewide.
“There really is a movement right now to promote the local fisheries and local fishing,” said Fukushima. “From an industry standpoint, we’re seeing a big bright light. The demand for our products is increasing. The public awareness of what we do is on a scale that hasn’t been recognized in a long time.”
Nearly two years of effort culminated with the event at Hubbs in March, where the plans for Tuna Harbor were whittled down to three options. It was the first time the fishermen were able to see — on paper — Gaffen’s redesigns for their home base. No one was 100 percent satisfied, but as Gaffen had warned several times in the past, that was to be expected.
Up for debate were where to place the fish market, how to arrange the docks and where to put critical infrastructure. In the end, the group settled on a new, fourth option — a hybrid of the other three.
“Being Jewish I always heard the saying that when there’s two Jews there’s five opinions,” Gaffen said during an interview at his company’s building in March, “but with the fishermen, I think where there’s two fishermen there’s 10 opinions.”
Over coffee in North Park, Halmay reflected on a recent meeting with Gaffen.
“The other night changed my mind about the developers,” Halmay said. “They were listening. Until that time, I had a feeling that they were putting it off until they came up against a hard deadline.
“I’m not seeing that now. I’ve seen three ideas, they want to nudge us toward compromise. We’re willing to compromise as long as we can continue as we are.”
Gaffen has been forced to compromise, as well. Perhaps the biggest point of contention between the two sides was the idea of having a mixed-use harbor — meaning the fishermen could be mingling with yachts and pleasure boats. But pushback from the fishermen, who are concerned about liability and complaints, made Gaffen change his mind — even though yachts in Tuna Harbor would bring in exponentially more money for Seaport.
“We are not planning any recreational use in Tuna Harbor, let me be clear,” Gaffen said at a February meeting.
“If it doesn’t work for them, it isn’t going to work for us,” Gaffen told inewsource in August, “and if we can’t create that win-win that they are comfortable with, this project isn’t going to move. It’s going to get stalled up in controversy.”
The plans for Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf will be presented to the port’s board of directors in May, with the intention of having the details baked into the Port Master Plan Update process, which is scheduled to begin this summer. But for now, the two sides are moving forward, each cautiously optimistic.
When will they feel completely comfortable with each other?
“What will do it for me is when we have a functional facility,” said Shevis Shima, senior vice president of sales for Santa Monica Seafood, “when we’re buying the same amount of volume if not more volume than currently.”
“When all the fishermen meet with me over a beer and tell me, ‘Shevis, we made it.’”
Reporter Brad Racino talks with KPBS about this story…
Plans to develop San Diego’s waterfront have birthed an unlikely alliance determined to wake a once-powerful industry from a long sleep.
Like every real-life situation, the fishermen’s tale is not black and white. Reality is a complicated web of not just one developer’s vision, but a port’s priorities, state and federal restrictions, generations of family drama, international competition, and a somewhat-sordid history of waterfront development in America’s Finest City.
We'll let you know when big things happen.