Written by California Sea Grant Extension Specialist Dr. Theresa Sinicrope Talley:
As a kid, one of the coolest things to do was to go to one of the handful of local dockside fish markets. My favorite was basically a weathered wooden shanty on the docks. It was surrounded by fishing boats strewn with colorful buoys, like balloons, greedily squawking gulls (yeah, like the ones in Finding Nemo), salty sea smells, and the chance to see up close what could be found in our waters. Couldn’t beat it. Nearby, the fishermen and dock groupies were sharing fish stories. The fish market folks nattered with us, happy to pass on fish stories, the latest gossip, and ideas about how to cook the stuff, so that we were more likely to buy something we might not have otherwise. This was more than a place to grab some fish for dinner – it was an experience. It was part of our identity.
Skip ahead 20 years. Okay, closer to 30. Shortly after starting my job with California Sea Grant last August as a “Coastal Specialist,” I set out to help find the answer to why San Diego isn’t this place. It’s next to the ocean. The ocean has fish. There are fishermen. We even have our very own aquafarm, but there are no dockside fish markets, and it’s relatively difficult to find local catch. Recreationally, coastal San Diego is fairly well-connected to the coast – surfing, kayaking, beaching, and many folks from San Diego love seafood – fish tacos, grilled swordfish. But what I’m learning is that most of the seafood we get, along with the rest of the country, is imported from places like Asia, Mexico and South America. “So what?” you might ask. Well, buying the bulk of our seafood from far away is less desirable than buying local for all sorts of reasons – environmental, health, social and economic.
Why local food is so important
The imported stuff is generally cheaper than local, which may sound like good economics. But, underpaid labor overseas, a general lack of regulations on catch limits, habitat impacts and processing safety, along with undervalued global transport – there are no costs for the carbon footprint associated with shipping this stuff half way around the world – all allow the low prices. The United States and California, in particular, have some of the strictest regulations on catches, habitat protection and food safety in the world. We pay our workers more than the few bucks per week earned in less developed countries. This results in lower availability and higher prices of the local stuff, but local products get high marks for sustainability.
What’s more, not seeing where our food comes from further disconnects us from the natural environment, as if our sedentary, indoor lifestyles weren’t enough. Without these connections to nature, we lack awareness of what’s out here and how cool it is, and how much we depend on local nature in everyday life (out of sight, out of mind). The lack of connection between people and nature weakens the wellness of natural and human communities alike. For example, being disconnected from nature reduces our sense of environmental responsibility (less incentive to take care of these natural systems), shrinks demand for ecologically sustainable food, lowers availability of safe and healthy food, detracts from the local economy and creates breaks in cultural heritage associated with the coast.
Culinary adventurers needed!
We have become habituated to imported seafood products, which consist mostly of frozen shrimp and packaged fish fillets. These are homogenous and bland compared to the locally fished species — those things brought in by San Diego’s fishing community. Most of us have lost our sense of culinary adventure when it comes to seafood. Think about your last few seafood purchases: Did you buy a little salmon, swordfish or tuna, and maybe something white and flakey from the freezer section? Or, maybe you bought nothing at all because you weren’t sure what to do with it, or you thought it would be too stinky or messy? We are creatures of habit and our current habits may be barriers to the revitalization of the local fishing industry and all its benefits. Many of the products caught or harvested are unconventional to the average San Diegan and so may be overlooked (for example, whelks, urchins, sardines). And, yes, several products are popular, as pointed out already, but high demand of only a few species leads to high fishing pressure, which may not be sustainable for the fishery or the ecosystem. Best would be to take fewer numbers of more types of fish and shellfish.
What can we do to revitalize and become a part of San Diego’s long, rich coastal culture? Two things, and they require you to be a little adventurous. First, head down to the docks, talk to the fishermen, see and hear where your food is coming from, and just generally soak in the ambiance. Second, try some of the diversity of local, San Diego seafood. Know that eating even a little of a variety of local species is healthy for you, the environment, the local economy and for coastal livelihoods.
San Diego dockside experiences
Where can you visit the docks and buy local seafood directly from the fishermen? Well, there are only three working docks in San Diego — two in San Diego Bay, and one in Mission Bay. There is currently only one place for weekly off-the-boat sales and that is at Tuna Harbor in San Diego Bay (visit TheFishAddiction on Facebook). Two fishermen’s markets are proposed for San Diego Bay. Coming this summer is the Fishermen’s Farmers Market at Driscoll’s Wharf, and soon the dockside market at Tuna Harbor will expand to include other fishermen from San Diego Bay and Mission Bay, and Carlsbad Aquafarm. Local seafood can also be had at some supermarkets, seafood markets and farmers markets, but not all carry San Diego seafood, so be sure to ask. Finally, a great way to get ideas about preparing San Diego seafood products is from one of the area sustainable seafood restaurants. But again, ask for San Diego sourced products to be sure.
Written by Theresa Sinicrope Talley, email@example.com