March Fisherman Highlight: Kelly Fukushima

Fish Tales: Stories of Local Fishermen in San Diego                       By Cindy Quinonez, Co-Chair of Sustainable Local Seafood System Working Group

Life-stories of San Diego fishermen are better than most big fish tales.  No exception is the story of first-generation fisherman Kelly Fukushima who has been catching swordfish, shark, tuna and more off San Diego’s coast for the past twenty+ years.  

Most San Diegans know fishing has been an essential element of life here at least since the time of the Kumeyaay. Fishermen unloading their catch in Tuna Harbor have been an ever-changing but ever-present part of the city’s core identity.   What not everyone knows is that today, more than ever, relatively young fishermen like Kelly are making the local fishing industry a powerful competitive asset, helping San Diego not only be different but better than so many cities around the world --- a showcase of seafood sustainability.

In 2000, with the help of an ACCION small business loan, Kelly bought a new boat.  Since then he’s been investing heavily in new technologies, and trialing more efficient, economical, eco-friendly seafood harvest methods.  Take Kelly’s big financial dive into Deep-set Buoy Gear (DSBG), which allows him and his crew to better avoid sensitive by-catch while harvesting healthy stocks of swordfish, shark, tuna, opah, dorado, and yellowtail. With DSBG, they can catch one fish at a time, in colder water that ensures top quality, while providing one-time use traceability tags for tracking catch from vessel to plate. Non-targeted species have a greater chance to be released unharmed. Precious ocean-based food resources are conserved for both future consumption and for future commercial fishing careers with promise enough to draw more youth into the trade.

Three Boys, Kelly’s boat, is one of the 131 commercial fishing vessels licensed in San Diego County. Together these boats harvest more than forty species of seafood using five major fishing gear types – hook and line, experimental and trolling, pots and trap, net, dive – each benefiting our economy differently. Sure, San Diego is no longer “Tuna Capital of the World.” Better -- the diverse harvest of San Diego fishermen like Kelly is helping ensure the industry can keep growing strong, well into the future. 

Fish business challenges are hardly few and insignificant, just faced with incredible optimism and energy.  Not only by Kelly and his crew, but his three sons and wife Jolene too.  The entire Fukushima family helps on the boat and even more with weekly sales, direct and through their Loaf and Fish seafood sandwich booth the every-Saturday, fishermen-run Tuna Harbor Dockside Market.  As Kelly told California Sea Grant researchers last September, “Selling our catch gets harder and harder each day.” The research study confirmed options for commercial fishermen to sell locally is limited by too many retailers finding it easier to fill their seafood cases with lower-cost unsustainably caught foreign imports.

Also, as cited by the study and experienced by Kelly and other San Diego fishermen on a continual basis, there are huge waterfront workspace challenges.  These include incredibly limited space for docking boats, maintaining gear, offloading and refrigerating catch. Currently, there are only two commercial fishing harbors in San Diego Bay. Neither are owned or operated by commercial fishermen, placing the maintenance and fate of these facilities in someone else’s hands.  Reliable, up-to-date waterfront infrastructure is needed, as well as space for selling catch directly to the public. The verdict is still out whether or not infrastructure improvements will come with the Port of San Diego’s planned Central Embarcadero downtown waterfront development, which encompasses historic Tuna Harbor as well as Seaport Village. 

Whenever you stop down at Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, and purchase catch just off the Three Boys for your dinner table, or savor the city’s freshest fish tacos, sandwiches and salads from Jolene’s Loaf and Fish booth, you’re doing a lot more: you’re supporting the future of San Diego that Kelly, his crew and their fishing cronies have spent their lives crafting, much to our benefit. 

Kelly is living proof that ethical fishermen can make a living from the sea while following the letter of the law intended to ensure the long-term survival of fisheries.  He helps the local fishing industry clearly fill front-and-center San Diego’s image as “America’s Finest City.”  There aren’t many better stories to tell than Kelly’s, in the fishing industry or our region.

Please share the history of your fishing business. How did the business get started? Why are you committed to it?

Kelly Fukushima has a 20+ year history of catching swordfish, shark, tuna and more off San Diego’s coast, doing it right with his commitment to seafood sustainability.  In 2000, an ACCION small business loan helped with the purchase of a new boat.  Since then Kelly has been investing big in new technologies, and trialing more efficient, economical, eco-friendly seafood harvest methods.  For example, Deep-set Buoy Gear (DSBG), which helps Kelly and his crew avoid sensitive by-catch while harvesting healthy stocks of swordfish, shark, tuna, opah, dorado, and yellowtail. With DSBG, they can catch one fish at a time, in colder water that ensures top quality, while providing one-time use traceability tags for tracking catch from vessel to plate. Non-targeted species have a greater chance to be released unharmed. Precious ocean-based food resources are conserved for both future consumption and for future commercial fishing careers with promise enough to draw more youth into the trade.

What is your vision for your business?

I’ve been doing this for 20 years, my entire family is engaged in the fishing industry with direct marketing or working on the boat with me. We aspire to be a fishing family. Fishing is a viable way of making a living and I think it’s a great job.

What are the biggest challenges for your business?  

Fighting to keep San Diego’s fishing industry infrastructure
Working to keep regulations within reason
Sales at a price that can sustain operations  

And what do fishermen need to succeed?

Power – they need the capacity / organizational wherewithal to maintain and grow their businesses in the face of unsustainable foreign competition, regulations and threats to the place in the harbor.

What would you like San Diegans to know?

The more San Diegans know their local fish and fishermen, the better. 
 

https://vimeo.com/175614766

https://caseagrant.ucsd.edu/news/the-geographic-inequity-of-san-diego-seafood-availability