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California Sea Grant Research Informs New Law to Permit Fishermen’s Markets

California Sea Grant researches fishermen’s market, informs policy

By Deborah Seiler, California Sea Grant

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed new legislation to streamline the permitting and operation of direct, local fishermen’s markets in California. Dubbed the “Pacific to Plate” bill, AB 226 allows fishermen’s markets to operate as food facilities, vendors to clean their fish for direct sale, and multiple fishermen to organize a market under a single permit.

It’s a victory that has been a long time coming for local San Diego fishermen like Zack Roach, Jr. and Peter Halmay, part of a dwindling community of family-run fishing businesses. Prior to 2014, direct sales to consumers were limited to boats and a few farmers’ markets, which could be difficult to transport fresh catch to. Halmay and Roach sold to a few dozen savvy customers each weekend from Roach’s family boat. They had looked before into expanding their operation onto land, but the means to legally permit a fishermen’s market in California simply wasn’t there.

Their situation caught the attention of Theresa Sinicrope Talley, an Extension scientist with California Sea Grant and East Coast transplant with fond memories of buying clams and lobster on the waterfront. Charged by her position to put science to work for Californians, Talley had first met Halmay when she asked for an introduction to San Diego’s harbor and fishing community. Now, she saw an opportunity to help.

Demand for local seafood on the rise

“One hold up in the launching of a fishermen’s market stemmed from a general lack of confidence in whether a it could succeed,” Talley said. “So we decided to look at: What’s the supply? What’s the demand?”

During the fall and winter of 2013, Talley and her co-investigator Adina Batinzky of University of San Diego conducted surveys for a market feasibility study. The project brought together fishermen, nutritionists, local regulators, scientists, chefs and community members to discuss and learn about San Diego’s fisheries. Their results demonstrated a widespread demand for local seafood, and enough supply to keep customers happy.

Having the hard numbers gave the push for a fishermen’s market new momentum. “It was a very, very helpful study,” Halmay said. “It gave us credibility for the ideas we had… Whenever we had to appear in front of a commission or anything, I asked Theresa to present her study.”

Halmay credits the researchers for working closely with fishermen who know the ins and outs of their business and asking the right questions. “Theresa did not do her work in the ivory tower, she came down to the docks where she could meet with fishermen formally and informally.”

Launching the market

While public outreach from the study was creating a groundswell of interest in launching a fishermen’s market, demand alone couldn’t create a permit process where none existed. When local seafood journalist Clare Leschin-Hoar covered the roadblock in Voice of San Diego, San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox took notice.

“That was the big turnaround,” Talley said. “It only took a couple weeks for Supervisor Cox and Bob Nelson [Chairman of the Unified Port of San Diego] to get a temporary permit approved.”

The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market opened on August 2, 2014, drawing more than 1300 customers in five hours. In its first months, the market averaged an impressive 350 customers and 1.1 tons of seafood sold each week, generating about $15,000 in direct sales. Roach’s sales of rock crab have tripled from when he sold off the boat, and the diversity of seafood available to buyers has grown. Halmay said the market is a boon for keeping San Diego’s historic fishing culture alive.

“The market allows fisherman to be viewed by the community as people who exist here,” Halmay said. Although the majority of San Diego’s local catch will continue to be sold to seafood distributors, the market allows a personal connection between the fishermen and their customers that would otherwise be lost. In addition to discussing taste and prices, Halmay says seafood eaters can now also ask the fisherman directly – “what are you doing to ensure the sustainability of this product?”

San Diego creates new model for California

Halmay expects the new permits will lead to more fishermen transferring their direct sales from small, off-boat operations to bustling markets in California’s coastal communities. “I see one in Ventura, Santa Barbara, Half Moon Bay – all of them have some form of market. All of [these fishermen] will be able to look at this legislation and say, ‘Hey, we exist.’”

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