On this episode of our podcast, Scene in San Diego Featuring Eater, we dive deep into an industry synonymous with San Diego’s waterfront culture: the fishing industry. How are local fishermen weathering the pandemic storm? Instead of going at it solo, they’re choosing to work together.
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic reached San Diego County in mid-March, the shutdowns and restrictions for local restaurants have heavily impacted business for local fishermen. How are they moving seafood these days? How are they staying afloat?
To talk fishing and the hospitality industry, we’re joined by two guests: Pete Halmay and Chef Phillip Esteban.
Halmay is the president of the nonprofit San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group and the director of San Diego’s beloved Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. On the podcast, Halmay talks about just how things have changed over the past six months for local fishermen – and how he’s determined to bring anglers together for the greater good.
Esteban – a National City native who’s made his rounds on “Chopped” on The Food Network – is part of the team behind Open Gym, a local group that runs Craft Meals Catering, a group focused on making a positive impact on the San Diego community through locally sourced food.
Esteban has several local upcoming projects on the docket, including White Rice, a Filipino rice bowl food stall in Liberty Public Market; Wordsmith, a culinary shop and bookstore; and WellFed, a Filipino restaurant in his hometown of National City.
In the middle of the pandemic madness, Halmay and Esteban have come up with a way to work together through a program called Fish to Families that helps local fishermen, the hospitality industry and San Diegans in need.
So, there will be no sinking here, despite the tough times – only swimming and making it work.
Listen to Episode 7 here:
Episode 7: How Has COVID-19 Impacted San Diego’s Fishing Industry?
As is true for so many businesses over the past six months, it’s been quite a ride for San Diego’s fishing industry. The rough waters began in mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic reached San Diego County and local restaurants were ordered to temporarily close.
Many restaurants that were part of the widespread COVID-induced shutdown bought their fish and seafood directly from local fishermen, but with few restaurants up and running, there were few sales. Local fishermen were stuck with fish that they had expected to sell but restaurants weren’t biting.
And, as you can imagine, fish is something that needs to be sold quickly to maintain its peak freshness. Many fishermen – including those who sell at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market – had to sell their catches at low prices just to move that fish.
As the pandemic set in, things changed a bit at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market (located at 598 Harbor Lane) along San Diego’s Embarcadero. While the market remains open every Saturday – rain or shine – from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or until the fish runs out), there’s also now a pre-order component that helps fishermen increase their sales.
Here’s how it works: Whatever species are available for pre-order are added to the market’s online store every Thursday at 5 p.m. Pre-order sales last through 7 p.m. Friday. Customers can pick up their order on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in a designated area at the end of the Tuna Harbor parking lot. Whatever isn’t picked up by 1:30 p.m. is donated to first responders. You can pre-order your fish and seafood and learn all about the market’s set-up here.
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Fish to Families
Speaking of changing course a bit here, local fishermen have banded together to create a meal distribution program called Fish to Families centered on three communities hit hard by the pandemic: the fishing industry, hospitality workers and locals facing food insecurity.
The San Diego-grown pilot program is a partnership that includes the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group and Halmay, and Open Gym and Esteban.
A group of 12 local fishermen is providing about 550-600 pounds of seafood weekly to the program, receiving roughly wholesale prices for their catches. For many, this has been a saving grace during these difficult times. Some of those locally landed catches have included albacore tuna, thresher shark, black cod, opah and angelshark.
Esteban and the hospitality staff with Fish to Families then turn that fresh fish into healthy, tasty, sustainable meals distributed to locals in need. The group aims to run a zero-waste operation; the goal is to use the whole fish in the most creative ways to feed as many people in need. In its first five weeks, Fish to Families was able to distribute 2,400 meals.
The program is also giving job stability to hospitality staff and, as Esteban shared with us, providing valuable culinary training.
A grant from the San Diego Foundation through its San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund is supporting the 13-week Fish to Families pilot program, but the group hopes to secure more funding to continue its efforts and onboard even more fishermen and chefs.
You can learn more about Fish to Families here.
Guest Interviews: Pete Halmay and Chef Phillip Esteban
Halmay has been a commercial sea-urchin diver in San Diego for decades. Today, he’s a leader and trusted voice in the local fishing industry.
He told us he’s been building what he calls “social capital” among San Diego’s fishing community for 40 years. That’s why, these days, they’re so united.
“I saw that it was important for the fishermen to start speaking together – to have one voice,” Halmay said. “When fishermen start working together, good things happen. Individually, we don’t accomplish quite as much.”
Esteban is very busy these days. On top of his latest projects (White Rice at Liberty Public Market; WellFed in National City; Wordsmith in National City) and catering company, he and his team have also been running a separate catering service that provides meals to local community groups through the World Central Kitchen program run by humanitarian chef and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jose Andres.
Esteban tapped into that experience for inspiration with Fish to Families.
“An opportunity of COVID is that a lot of [culinary] talent became available, and so we all kind of came together to create Fish to Families,” he explained.
On our podcast, both Halmay and Esteban shared how the program came together, fish by fish, meal by meal.
“It was a natural partnership,” Halmay said.
Time and time again, Halmay said Esteban and his chefs have turned catches into beautiful meals. Halmay said it’s as if they can’t be “stumped.”
Esteban looks at a 200-pound tuna as an opportunity to educate his staff and to practice sustainability.
“These are outstanding meals,” Halmay said. “It’s really impressive that the quality of the meals is great. It’s not just, ‘Let’s pump out 300 meals.’ ”
Esteban shares how he brainstorms for the meals and what goes into his creative culinary process. Hint: He’s a big fan of grilled fish.
Meanwhile, Halmay also spoke to us about the changes at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market and how the market has become a lifeline for many fishermen.
“[The pandemic] has taught us that we had better figure out a way to get our fish to the community,” he said. “And Tuna Harbor Dockside Market is one way.”
Halmay said that even once restaurants and wholesalers go back to buying more fish, he hopes programs like Fish to Families can continue.
“We got a lot of fish,” he said. “The idea is that there will be something for everybody. We really have to build up these direct markets. There’s enough for everybody. And, if not, then let’s fish a little harder. Let’s bring in more fish.”
Esteban agreed. He said work like this is now “woven into the fabric” of his projects.
“It’s who we are and what we’re going to continue to do,” Esteban said. “As Pete said, there’s always going to be a home for it – there’s always going to be people in need of help.”
Halmay and Esteban left us with some thoughts on the next steps for the Fish to Families program and what's cooking in the coming weeks in that kitchen.
The Scene in San Diego Feat. Eater Podcast is hosted by NBC 7’s Monica Garske and Eater San Diego’s Candice Woo, and is produced by NBC 7’s Matthew Lewis.