Close to 200 people turned out Thursday for a sold-out event organized by the San Diego Food Systems Alliance on the future of Tuna Harbor, an important vestige of San Diego’s legacy fishing industry. The waterfront is an issue reporter Brad Racino has been following in a series of in-depth stories since April 2016.
Because of his expertise, Brad was asked to moderate a panel representing major stakeholders in downtown waterfront development. The panelists were San Diego Unified Port Commissioner Raphael Castellanos, commercial fisherman Kelly Fukushima, Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientist Theresa Talley, president of Allegis Development (part of the Seaport developer team) Kip Howard and processor Shevis Shima of Santa Monica Seafood.
The event kicked off with introductory remarks and a speech by San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, followed by Racino, the developer and commercial fisherman Fukushima. The Q&A panel last 45 minutes and left another 45 for attendees to ask questions.
Panelists addressed concerns about overdevelopment, environmentalism and public land while recapping the work that’s taken place behind the scenes over the past year to find solutions that will appease all major stakeholders.
The event drew big names, including the executive director of California’s Fish and Game Commission who flew from Sacramento to learn about current developments at Seaport — including the formation of a commercial fishing steering committee — and how those efforts might apply statewide.
Here’s the full text of Brad’s speech:
Hello all, and thank you for coming to what I think will be a pretty enlightening discussion about a development that has the potential to change a large swath of land and, along with it, an entire industry.
My name is Brad Racino and I’m an investigative reporter with inewsource. For those of you who’ve never heard of inewsource, we are a nonpartisan, nonprofit news agency here in town. We publish stories on our own website, at inewsource.org and through our partners, like KPBS TV and radio, CBS 8 and the Times of San Diego. We distinguish ourselves by bolstering our work with documents and data — so in an age of ‘fake news’ and media skepticism, you don’t have to believe what we’re telling you, you can check out the supporting information yourself.
Now, I’ve covered the Port of San Diego on and off for several years, most recently with a story that detailed how and why the North Embarcadero turned out the way it did. I’ll get to that a little later. But that story led to my covering the Central Embarcadero, which is essentially this Seaport project. For the past seven months or so, the fishermen, the port and the developer have been welcoming to me — which is noteworthy to say the least. When most people hear the word “investigative reporter,” their first instinct isn’t usually to open doors and invite me in.
I’m sort of like a vampire in that respect.
But the developer has made himself available at every opportunity for interviews and debriefs. The port has been open and communicative. And the fishermen have welcomed me onto their boats. So I’ve been privileged to watch this process unfold behind the scenes, and I’ve got to say, this subject is fascinating, no matter who you are.
And that’s because, like every great story, it touches on so many different topics. There’s real estate and development, history, science and technology, local, state and federal regulations, and of course, the ocean. Who doesn’t like the ocean?
So we’re going to explore most of those aspects in our panel discussion, but before we do, I want to take a few minutes to explain three things that are essential to understand for today’s discussion.
The first thing to know is that San Diego’s commercial fishing industry used to be very different than it is today. For the 19th and most of the 20th century, fishing defined this city. Boats flooded the bay and canneries lined the streets from Laurel down to Barrio Logan. The trade employed thousands of men and women and earned San Diego a nickname you’re probably going to hear a lot today, the “Tuna Capital of the World.”
But the good times always come to an end, and for San Diego fishermen, that began around the mid-20th century and really manifested during the late ‘70s and 80s. Now there are several reasons why — none of them solely responsible for the downturn. But taken together they were devastating to the industry. Those factors were:
- Overfishing of certain stocks, which led to…
- Environmental movement, which led to…
- Stricter state and federal regulations,
- Increased foreign competition, which contributed to…
- A change in dietary habits among Americans
Not being critical of over-regulation here. I wanted to make sure everyone is aware of how compliant California fishermen must be to do their job.
There were also other contributing issues, including:
What one industry consultant called, in a really eloquent metaphor, “a fractured voice.” Meaning there are many different types of fishermen and each essentially is a small business owner looking out for his or her best interests. It’s very hard for them to speak as one powerful unit because they are naturally divided.
Another contributing factor is a general lack of public support or knowledge of commercial fishing. I’ve been learning about this industry for a year and I’m still finding out new things. Like for example, did you know that it’s illegal to serve sushi in the US that hasn’t been frozen first? Because freezing kills parasites.
Aside from tuna. Tuna doesn’t need to be frozen first because … science.
A third contributing factor to current problems in the industry is the aging stewards: I hope they don’t take offense at this but most of San Diego’s fishermen are not young. These are men who have been fishing for decades and would really like to pass on their trade to a younger generation, but that’s not happening. Why? Because it’s hard to incentivize new blood when there’s little profit motive. It’s like trying to talk your kids into a career in making floppy disks.
The second thing to understand for this discussion is that the fishermen don’t trust anyone. And it’s not because they’re conspiracy theorists but because they get screwed over quite a bit. Commercial fishermen in general, that is.
Whether its by developers encroaching on their land, or ports not providing them with proper infrastructure and maintenance at the marinas, or by state and federal regulators that restrict where and how much they can fish, or by local seafood restaurants that import fish from overseas rather than buying local… the list goes on and on.
This is important because for the past year, these same fishermen — who don’t trust anyone — have made it a priority to work with a developer and with each other to craft a new vision for San Diego and southern California. So the fact that you have a developer sitting up here alongside a commercial fisherman and processor is commendable, to say the least. And let’s be honest, it’s not a selfless act for either party. The fishermen want to get the most they can out of this for their industry, and the developer wants Seaport to function as a working waterfront to draw more tourists to the area. But that doesn’t mean that whatever comes out of this can’t provide a greater good for the citizens of San Diego.
That’s my long-winded way of saying that this is not your typical development project. There is an overwhelming responsibility among the people you see up here today to do this thing right, because there’s a lot of land, a lot of money and a lot of livelihoods at stake.
Which leads me to my third point, and this is probably the most critical for those of you in the audience.
All of this land and water that we’re going to be talking about today — 40 acres between the Midway and the Hyatt — is your land.
Yes, the land is managed by the Port of San Diego, and its tenants often get long-term leases on the property, but legally the land belongs to you. The public. If you don’t believe me, you can read the Public Trust Doctrine.
I’m telling you this because history tends to repeat itself, and several years ago the North Embarcadero — the land we’re standing on today — was up for redevelopment. And things did not turn out as planned:
You see, in the 1990s, the Port of San Diego wanted to “breathe new life” into this one-mile stretch called the North Embarcadero — since it was pretty seedy and underutilized. The idea was to build up the waterfront as a gift to the public rather than develop it for profit. It took five government agencies several years to hammer out the details, and in in the year 2000, the Port adopted this new vision — called the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan — into its Port Master Plan. The Port Master Plan is a legally binding document that lays out waterfront development down to every last detail.
This new vision called for a large public park at the foot of Broadway Pier, right behind you. It also called for this pier, Navy Pier and the Grape Street Piers to be converted into public parks.
But none of that happened. Today, instead of a public park, there’s this building. There’s a parking lot on Navy Pier and there is no plan in sight for renovating the Grape Street Piers. And that large public park? It never materialized, and instead part of that land has been taken over by hotels.
If you’d like a detailed breakdown of how and why things went sideways, I’m going to self-promote for a second and recommend you read a story we published last year, available at inewsource.org/waterfront.
The takeaway from that story — and so many others in that same vein — is that powerful interests in San Diego often find a way to get what they want, and too often to the public’s detriment.
Even the best-intentioned plans have a way of changing behind the scenes, piece by piece, and I’d caution everyone here today to keep a close eye on this development over the coming years, and hold everyone to their word — the port, the developer, even the fishermen.
As a reporter, ethically I cannot advocate for or against many things, especially a billion dollar development. I can say that I’m happy to see that everyone is coming to the table and working together productively instead of in their own silos. And I can advocate for an engaged citizenry. So if you support this project, tell your friends. If you hate it, speak up at a port meeting. They happen every month.
If you support the fishermen, go buy fresh fish one Saturday morning at the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. If you hate fishermen for some reason, I dunno, make fun of their boats or something.
Point being, don’t sit idly by while a project this massive is in its formative stages. This is your land, your port, and your future we’re talking about today.
So let’s get started.
We'll let you know when big things happen.