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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Ken Bates is a longtime fisherman and vice president of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association, not far from the Oregon border. By the 1970s, more than half the fish consumed in California was landed in the Humboldt Bay area.
He said processors are buying very little crab, prices are super low, anything being exported is “pretty much in the tank” and “there’s nobody fishing for any restaurants now.”
But then, Bates added, he’s heard a few colleagues have recently had their best days ever selling directly to the public.
“It’s kind of a head-scratcher,” he said. Maybe it’s a much-needed bright spot. “We’re really optimistic up here, which is really stupid.”
Even though California’s commercial fishing industry is a shadow of what it was 50 years ago, it still packs a punch. The economic sector that includes commercial fishing, fish hatcheries, aquaculture, seafood processing and markets employed more than 8,500 people in California in 2016. It also accounted for more than $403 million in wages and contributed more than $1 billion to the country’s gross domestic product.
In an interview four years ago with inewsource, one industry expert called America’s working waterfronts the “undersung heroes of the national economic landscape.” Henry Pontarelli, vice president and co-owner of Lisa Wise Consulting, an economics and urban planning firm, added, “There’s a lot of value and people don’t know about it.”
Among all coastal states that year, the sector employed roughly 88,000 people, accounted for nearly $4 billion in wages and contributed more than $11 billion to the GDP.
How coronavirus ripples throughout the commercial fishing sector will have a downstream effect on jobs, markets and related industries.
“Fishing is safer than ever,” joked urchin diver Peter Halmay, who often speaks for San Diego’s commercial fishermen.
“We can jump on a boat and get out of here,” he said. “We just can’t come back.”
Saturday’s dockside market
There’s always some traffic along San Diego’s waterfront on weekends, with cars slowly making their way past bayside attractions like the USS Midway Museum and yielding to pedestrians crossing North Harbor Drive and the neighboring streets of Little Italy.
Saturday was different.
Only joggers were out in force. Some didn’t bother to look before crossing the road. Red lights flashed at empty intersections. Restaurants were shuttered.
But as the fishermen from Humboldt found, there was a sign of hope.
A line of customers stretched hundreds of feet outside the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market where San Diego’s commercial fishermen sell their catch after days, weeks or sometimes months at sea. Pop-up tents displayed a variety of seafood, including tuna, black cod, crabs and urchin.
“I don’t really have a lot of fears of the coronavirus. I’m just trying to be mindful about it,” said Arles Blair, who was at the market with her daughter and husband. “I think you can see, for the most part, people are doing a pretty good job at staying a little bit far away from each other.”
There were indicators of the new normal: The fishmongers wore surgical masks, volunteers and Harbor Police ensured customers stood six feet apart and hand sanitizer abounded.
The crowd, socially distanced, gave the fishing industry a boost.
Haworth, who a few days earlier told inewsource he’d be reducing prices, sold out within a few hours. His boat, the Kaylee H, sat alongside the pier with a crew cutting fresh tuna for customers.
“Real positive vibes from 95% of the people,” Haworth said. “A couple people worried about being too close, but all-in-all it was very, very good.”
Tuna sales on Saturday were one-and-a-half times what they usually are, Halmay said, and all of the vendors sold out. But that doesn’t mean the fishermen can stay afloat on Saturday markets alone.
“We’re going to keep trying to keep it the lowest price of the year,” Haworth said, hoping the sales will continue to draw people to the bay. The fishermen and their work, considered “essential” by the state, remain a slice of San Diego’s original economy, and they’re determined to survive the world’s latest disruption.
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