David Haworth looks into the supply hold of one of his fishing boats in San Diego's Tuna Harbor, March 18, 2020. The boat was scheduled to go out earlier in the day, but Haworth kept it in after hearing from buyers there would be no market for the fish. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The true economic impact of the novel coronavirus is a long way from being determined, but it has likely already affected every industry in San Diego — including the one that helped define the region.

Why this matters

Since 2016, inewsource investigative reporter Brad Racino has covered the economic pressures that threaten what’s left of San Diego’s once thriving commercial fishing industry. That includes environmental restrictions, foreign competition and developments along San Diego Bay’s embarcadero. Now, the fishing industry faces a new economic enemy – the coronavirus pandemic.

Once called the Tuna Capital of the World, the county is home to some 130 commercial fishermen who bring in millions of pounds of fish each year. Restaurants, which buy the vast majority of their catch, have closed except for take-out orders to contain the pandemic, and the city’s once-a-week fish market is now the fleet’s primary way to reach consumers.

“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Tim Jones, a San Diego commercial fisherman for more than 30 years who is shutting down his operation to wait out the storm.

inewsource spoke with fishermen along the California coast from San Diego to Humboldt Bay to learn how the pandemic is affecting them.

Boat owner Tim Jones surveys ongoing maintenance work from the front of his fishing boat in San Diego’s Tuna Harbor, March 18, 2020. Jones will be shutting down his fishing operations as the COVID-19 outbreak continues. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“The primary markets are very heavily dependent on the restaurants and, of course, we’ve lost that,” said Jeremiah O’Brien, vice president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization. He said the coronavirus is “going to severely impact the whole fishing industry in the U.S.”

“To be perfectly honest, we’re not sure what we’re going to do,” O’Brien said.

Battle tested

Coronavirus isn’t the first thing to test the fortitude of San Diego’s commercial fishermen.

Environmental restrictions, foreign competition and other factors eviscerated this once-thriving sector of the local economy beginning in the mid- to late-20th century. A stark example: San Diego’s fishermen went from landing 149 million pounds of fish in 1981 to about 6 million in 1985 — a 96% drop. In 2018, they landed just 2.6 million pounds.

Boats remain docked in San Diego’s Tuna Harbor, March 18, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

On top of that, less than 10% of the seafood consumed by San Diegans is domestic and often consists of just three species: tuna, salmon and shrimp.

An earlier inewsource story explained how this history played out in San Diego and also how, despite being battered and bruised, the fleet found a way to survive.

Coronavirus is its newest test.

David Haworth, a second generation San Diego fisherman with decades of experience in the industry, said without wholesalers who supply restaurants, “The only sales we have right now are directly to consumer.”

And that’s not a long-term solution.

“It’s hard,” Haworth said, “if you catch thousands of pounds of fish to sell to a consumer.”

Commercial fisherman David Haworth stands on a dock in San Diego’s Tuna Harbor, March 18, 2020. Haworth is exploring ways to sell fish directly to consumers as his restaurant market has shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

In Morro Bay, fisherman O’Brien spoke to inewsource while driving around town with his wife, marveling at the emptiness of the normally jam-packed tourist destination about 100 miles north of Santa Barbara.

“There’s nobody here,” he said. “We’re driving through the campground, which is always full, and it’s almost totally empty.”

Morro Bay has a working waterfront and demand for locally caught and raised seafood. Commercial fishing employs about 200 people in the city of more than 10,000 and has generated more than $155 million in earnings at the dock since 1990.

O’Brien is the captain of the F/V Aguero and has been in the business for over 40 years.

“We supply China, believe it or not, with quite a bit of seafood across the board — black cod, lobster, dungeness crab,” he said. But China closed its doors to imported seafood in January due to coronavirus concerns. That, O’Brien said, “had an impact everywhere.”

“If we’re producing, we’re going to need a place to sell it,” he said. “Our infrastructure has to maintain in order to carry on our end of the food business.”