North of North Island

North of North Island

My first time to San Diego was memorable. Very memorable. Here’s why…

I guess my arrival was probably similar to any and all first time visitors to this Southern town in spitting distance of the Mexico border - A frightful descent on a medium-sized domestic carrier, ripping through the downtown skyline of residential apartments and office highrises - like some bat out of Hell desperately seeking one of California’s famous 6 lane highways for an emergency landing of the most improbable kind. I felt like Bruce Willis was on our landing gear yelling “yippie ki-yay mother f…” with a machine gun and pack of cigarettes in hand, all while the airplane smacked the tarmac with with an extreme lack of grace, demonstrating, among other things, that our nation’s current fleet of commercial airline pilots are wildly green in the wake of Postpandemic related shortages of everything requiring years of skill and training.

The San Diego airport, to the likely dismay of any responsible city planner confronting the geographic imprint, is at the center of this growing metropolis. So, as far as my landing was concerned, no emergency skidded crash was had that morning - just the usual tower buzz that so many San Diegans who work in the offices and airport adjacent commerces must be all too used to by now - no jittery hands spilling hot coffee at the frequent passage of these jetliners, etc. The plastic coffee cover, I image, was probably designed by the Navy? No, in truth, it was actually Willam and Kenneth Dart, of the Dart Container Corporation, circa 1981. At any rate, Starbucks and San Diegans thank you, the Dart brother. Now back to the story.

All of this happened in the Spring of 2022, which seems like decades ago for me but is only “last year”, demonstrating in some ways how far and deep I have journeyed personally in a bittersweet 2 year trek that has proven to be enormously insightful for my career. To put this all into better perspective, I had kickstarted this seemingly Don Quixotic fish traceability quest a couple of months prior after discovering somewhat painfully that I knew little to nothing about the landscape of the commercial fishing industry in the Golden State. There would be a few equally righteous souls in SD that would take me seriously, sharing a common interest to promote the local and be transparent as hell about it. 

San Diego, apart from being dominated by the US Navy from a cultural and geographic perspective (North Island, from the inspired title of this entry, is the military base island at the center of the inverted fish hook shaped port), has historically been one of the dominant tuna producing harbors in the US - and that’s what brings me here; Tuna. 

Well, swordfish too, but tuna is the main game, as all fish lover’s know. It’s the Ocean’s beef. Remember those awesome beef commercials from the 90s? Replace that with America’s renewed interest in tuna brought forth from the late 90s sushi craze, and you can almost picture USDA super-funded images of juicy tuna cuts flashing in front of your eyes, mouthwatering deliciousness perfectly reinforced by the invigorating Hoedown melody of composer Aaron Copland, all while some old "solid as a rock" farmer's comforting voice reassures you that this is “what’s for dinner”. Right? 

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The truth is that for this kind of food nirvana to be a reality, we would have to firstly have the fish - and, unfortunately, due to some misguided international political decisions, the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976, increased activisim on the part of powerful Ocean protection lobbies and independent donors, and Sacramento styled favoritism for the Valley in terms of global AG spending, the California fishing fleets are all but decimated. So, local fish is tough to find. And, fish consumption in America increases annually? Do the simple math, and you fine that most of our catch comes from somewhere else in the world, likely caught by fleets with much less starry-eyed idealism than we now hold our native fleets to, all while we gobble down those spicy tuna rolls or airport toro nigiri of dubious provenance. I digress. 

I stayed at a space in the downtown that was a former military building turned boutique hotel. My room had the dimensions and general feel of a posh prison cell - sort of utilitarian, stubbornly inadaptle architectural capacity, but well appointed? Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well that night, showing up early the next morning, wild eyed and caffeinated, to the famed Tuna Harbor Fishermen Market; this is a pop-up market that emerges every Saturday on a lone leg of a touristic outshoot of a bygone San Diego, where local commercial fisherman have staked a foothold on a pier that swarms with activity when they suddenly show up with the week’s bounty. The line extends blocks, so if you don’t get there early, you have the last pick of selections, or nothing at all. Thankfully, I had the special luxury of touring the market with John Law, fisherman and right-minded local authority who provides me direct shipments of Sheephead and Scorpionfish (aka Sculpin), when in season. 

I was given the name of David Haworth by a Half Moon Bay connection, Lisa Damroth of the LegaSea fishing outfit. Lisa suggested that I reach out to Haworth for Tuna, as I was then hungry for the large local pelagics (tuna, swordfish), for which David is sort of the San Diego reference at large. Haworth fishing company has a fleet of several long line tuna boats that make the trek from San Diego to Hawaii, sourcing Bigeye and Bluefin throughout the year. These boats will also often source Opah, Monchong, Wahoo, Albacore and various other related tuna species like Kingfish, Skipjack, and Bonito. David is also quite active when the local Bluefins make their run from Mexico to California in the Summer. 

My exchange with David was brief. He was busy offloading a long-liner near the Tuna Harbor Market when I approached him that Saturday morning, and told me to talk with this guy Joey at Chesapeake (a commercial seller) in the building to my back, if I wanted one of his fish. David’s phone was blowing up his pocket, so I took that as a sign to fuck off little fish, and go find a smaller pond. So, I walked into the rather sad office building structure behind me not knowing entirely that David was sending the lamb to slaughter. 

Facing off with Joey Principato of the Chesapeake Seafood Company was like the fishermen’s version of dealing with the Don of GodFather fame on his daughter’s wedding day, by asking for a favor. Let’s just say, no favors are given lightly and without pretext. 

Joey has run Chesapeake for the last couple of decades, and was the main purchaser of San Diego Tuna in the heyday, before being purchased by Santa Monica Seafoods and diverting most of its activity to cut and grading houses in Los Angeles. David Haworth still sells a lot of his Tuna to Joey, but all of that tuna speeds off to LA, is portioned, packaged, and sent everywhere in the country, even back to San Diego. I couldn’t buy fish from Haworth directly for the sole reason that I had no means to transport it North in a timely fashion - and that’s why I was sent to the Principato’s Office. 

My conversation with Joey was disappointing on two other crucial levels. He instructed me, with a stone-cold face that communicated that “I’ve seen it all, kid” expression, that he could get me some tuna, but it was unlikely that it would come whole (apparently everything is portioned in LA), and that he would not be able to guarantee that the fish I could get from Santa Monica Seafoods was indeed a tuna from David Haworth’s outfit of boats from San Diego (no transparency or traceability in these operations, at least not for the consumer’s benefit), which is the very reason I was down there to begin with. I left that office as a soon as I could get a foothold in the door, and immediately called my buddy Kelly Fukushima, another San Diego contact that I had been working with, to discuss what else was available. There had to be a way to leave with a local tuna in hand - I was determined to win on this account.

Kelly is about as reliable a fishermen as it gets - the voice of reason - the boy next door. Fiercely independent, holding mulptiple permits, he switches tackle with the seasons, staying nimble and flexible as the weather and change in seasons is a matter of life or death as a fishermen. Kelly put me in contact with Jim Silveira from Chula Seafoods, another local buyer, but as close to the fishermen as possible. Chula has a famed swordfish harpooning boat, so they deal in their own take, as well as passing house for local fishermen that don’t want to deal with the logistics of sending their fish to all corners of the City, greater SD area, or nationally. 

Jim is a solid dude, runs a couple of restaurants in Arizona with fish wholesaling business to feed it, and so we hit it off pretty smooth. Jim was the one who turned me on to air-cargo, and with that under my belt, I have been able to work with all sorts of fishermen up and down the coast, flying out of local airports and picking up fish the same day I send it out. Quite an effort for fresh fish or quality - but that’s the game. Jim also introduced me to Tommy Gommes, the Fishmonger, a local TV celeb and owner of a retail fish outlet. Tommy is one hell of a guy. Not only does he know almost everything about local fish species and how to prepare them, but he knows everyone in the trade down there, so he’s got the word on the street. Every time I am down in SD I make a point of stopping in to see what’s up with Tommy, and I come away with new and expanded knowledge on the subject of fish; he's a living encyclopedia on ichthyology.  

Unlike the entrenched fishermen of the old Tuna Harbor, where I had spent my morning, Jim and Tommy are based out of Discoll’s Wharf, a row of docks to the North of the port of SD, so North of North Island.  This was where I got my first local tuna for the restaurant - head, tail, and everything - about 75 pounds - a Bigeye tuna off a David Hayworth’s boat, the Kaylee H. Having come full circle there, getting a tuna finally from David Haworths boat, via Jim Silvera at Chula Seafood, on Driscol’s Wharf, North of North Island, a big piece in the larger fish traceability puzzle had been filled for me, providing context and motivation that would help carry me the distance. 

And so finally, and appropriately, in the eternally endearing words of Jerry Lee Lewis through his short-lived fictitious messenger, call sign "Goose": “Goodness, greatness, great balls of fire!” 

Peter J Hemsley

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