Crafting a $1.2 Billion Future for San Diego’s Tuna Harbor

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Commercial fisherman Phil Harris steers his boat out of San Diego Bay in August 2016. Photo by Brad Racino, inewsource.

Brad Racino | <em>inewsource</em>

Plans to develop San Diego’s waterfront have birthed an unlikely alliance determined to wake a once-powerful industry from a long sleep.

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If executed as planned, Seaport — a redevelopment of downtown’s Central Embarcadero expected to cost more than $1.2 billion — could revitalize what was once San Diego’s defining characteristic: a thriving commercial fishing industry. The stakes are huge not just for the fishermen who want to reinvigorate their marinas, but for Seaport’s developer who sees this project as his legacy; the scientific and aquaculture industries that could both benefit from a truly working waterfront; the Port of San Diego, charged with getting the best bang for the public’s buck; and the city and county of San Diego, which are still searching for a defining characteristic on a national and global stage.

To make it happen, local fishermen are stepping off their boats and into unfamiliar territory — the negotiating table with Seaport’s developer, Yehudi Gaffen, to discuss their wants, needs and dreams.

It’s an odd dynamic.

Tap the artwork to read the original story in this series, “In the Shadow of Seaport.” Artwork by Alexander Mostov for inewsource.

The fishermen are by their nature solitary, suspicious and combative with anyone encroaching on their livelihood. Many are old enough to remember commercial fishing’s better days, before tightening regulations sent catch levels down to a fraction of those a century earlier. Combined with foreign competition, a shrinking workforce and California waterfront development creeping into their home bases (marinas, some of the highest value real estate around), the fishermen are now in a corner.

“All these things have kind of come together to really put some of the guys in a position where they’re just ready to swing,” said industry consultant Henry Pontarelli, “ready to swing at somebody who comes up and says the wrong thing.”

That somebody is Gaffen, CEO of Gafcon, a project and construction management firm selected by the Port of San Diego for its grand vision of redeveloping the land between the USS Midway Museum and the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel with parks, an aquarium, a 480-foot spire, hotels, retail space and other attractions.

It could also change San Diego’s two commercial fishing marinas — Tuna Harbor and Driscoll’s Wharf — that the fishermen call home.

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There is a power dynamic at play: Gaffen wants the fishermen to support Seaport, otherwise they could oppose it at both the local and state level through the Port of San Diego and the California Coastal Commission. Both agencies have a legal mandate to protect commercial fishing. But it’s a risky gamble for the fishermen — a development this size, with this amount of money at play, could sway even the hardliners among both agencies in favor of Gaffen’s plans. If that happened, San Diego’s fishermen could be watching this development from the sidelines.

inewsource gained access to the meetings between Gaffen, the fishermen, scientists, government staff and other stakeholders over the past six months in order to document the start of this monumental undertaking.

Over the coming weeks, inewsource will publish stories on this development from different perspectives, including those of the fishermen, the developer, the port, the aquaculture and scientific industries and others.

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