Hope on the Horizon for San Diego’s Disappearing Fishing Community
A young civil engineer traveled around the world working on projects before he ditched his desk job to start sea urchin diving full time. Now, 47 years later, Pete Halmay muses about diving San Diego’s waters. “It’s not for everybody,” he concedes, “but if you love being out there, man there’s no better life and diving is better than anything. You don’t have to work on gear. You pick everything by hand, there’s no bycatch. When you come in and are done for the day, you go home.” Halmay would love to dive with his son, Luke. But, over the past six years, Luke has come up short in the limited-entry lottery for a license. Aging fishermen like Halmay, 71, are pushing to stay in the industry to ensure the future of fishing, but it’s only gotten harder. While Americans want more seafood, the national fisheries are the most tightly managed in the world and cheaper sources (many unregulated) are competing for a place on the plate.
The fishing dynasty system can work. If you’re raised with parents getting up and out well before rush hour kicks in, the natural rhythms of fishing are ingrained. However, if you’re looking to build a fishing career from scratch, it’s more challenging. But no matter how one enters the fishing profession, it’s a long game with few guarantees. Sea urchin fisherman turned processor, Dave Rudie, puts it this way, “It’s hard work, inconsistent income, there are barriers to entry, and it’s expensive to buy a boat, gear, and permits.”
When he was barely a teenager, Nick Haworth bought his first commercial license to crew on a purse seine squid boat. Now, with his own boat and the transfer of his father’s license, he sets lobster traps in the winter. Looking to become a captain on large ships, Nick has been going out for a month at a time to train on tuna boats while his father, David, manages their small fleet from San Diego. Regulations prevent David from using the lobster license when Nick is at sea, but he still has more than enough to do.
“I slept with a fishing pole as a kid. It’s all I ever wanted to do,” David Haworth says. He owns a half dozen small boats after growing into the industry with his father. Now he manages the intricacies of working different fisheries. “I find the crew and captain, deal with meetings and political stuff to stay in business, order bait, pay bills, insurance, and fishing permits. I send in logbooks and set the VMS (vessel monitoring systems) on all the boats. Then there’s maintenance. That’s almost a full-time job.” He also orders tackle for delivery since local stores have closed. It all keeps him very busy along with quality checks, marketing, selling, and setting prices. David told himself that he was retiring at 50 but, “I’m working way more than when I was younger.”
It’s intimidating when you just want to fish for a living. Swordfish, lobster, and sea urchins were the top San Diego fisheries in 2016. Some of those fishing licenses can be purchased, and each fishing technology has its regulations. Tuna and swordfish licenses are open-access, with different rules depending on the gear and where you’re fishing. Purchasing, outfitting, investing in, and running big boats to fish far offshore can run over $800,000. With over 60 different species coming into San Diego during the year, each catch has its own season, regulations, permits, licenses, and taxes to adhere to.
Halmay says, “You almost have to buy into the fisheries now. You’ve got to buy permits or you’ve got to buy catch. A lobster permit itself is $150,000. A spot prawn permit is $600,000. They last for life but you can sell them. For the people (like his son, Luke) who don’t have $150,000 or $600,000, there has to be another way of getting into the fisheries.”
That other way may be on the horizon. This June, Alaska and Massachusetts legislators introduced the bipartisan Young Fishermen’s Development Act (H.R. 2079, S.1323.) Well before that bill was introduced, San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography was developing an apprenticeship fishing program through Sea Grant. It will roll out by the fall of 2018, with state funding matched by federal dollars. The local program will pair young and seasoned fishermen in an apprenticeship commitment of 2,000 hours, balancing classes with working boats and docks for over a year and a half.
“The fishermen we’ve been talking with know they’ll get something out of it,” says Coastal Specialist, Theresa Sinicrope-Talley, PhD. They’ll get a “well-trained deckhand or apprentice who will be dedicated and loyal. And they’ll trust them a bit more after working together—they’re not just some young person to take their fishing ground.” ”The community’s got to buy into it,” notes diver Halmay. “I call it social capital. Everyone’s running around doing their own thing and we’ve got to start working together.”
With American food security, ensuring safe and sustainable seafood harvests—supported on both sides of the aisle in Washington—fishing apprenticeship programs will be “a bargain with products, research, and outreach from resilient coastal communities,” says Sinicrope-Talley. New generations of young fishermen are vital to the survival of fishing communities across America. Without them, jobs, American-caught seafood, and a way of life deeply rooted in tradition are threatened.
Before she was six years old, Jordyn Kastlunger went to sea with her grandfather and father. Now, in the summer, you’ll find her setting gill nets for halibut and white sea bass. In the winter, she’s harvesting lobster traps on her father’s boat. Kastlunger has seen the physical toll fishing has taken on her father, but she likes the work while completing college with a major in Child Development. Not quite 21 years old, each season she makes more than minimum wage and hopes “to have the ocean and fishing be part of my career.”
Kastlunger says that being on the ocean is “almost therapeutic, in a way. It’s something not many can do, or see, and you escape everything on land. You see things from a different perspective and things that the average person doesn’t.” Hopefully that vision, and the harvests that come with it, will continue for generations to come.