Selling out of crab before 5:30 a.m. and encountering a great white shark while diving for urchins is all in a day’s work.
NEWPORT BEACH — Growing up walking distance to Huntington Beach’s coastline and mere miles from Newport Beach’s border, as well as having a father who was an avid amateur fisherman, our family would often frequent the Newport Beach Pier. As a kid, I remember seeing the piles of bright orange rockfish at Newport Pier and seeing men who were quintessential fishermen types with tweed and knitted caps, beards, and long, tied-up hair as well as the fishy aroma combined with the salty sea air.
During the final week of December, more than two decades since my first visit, I arrived at Dory Fishing Fleet Market around 5 in the morning —not much has changed on first glance. Once you see Dory Fishing Fleet Market, you are taken back to the late 1800s. You know you are in a different place, especially in the quaint quarters where Newport Pier is and where Dory Fishing Fleet Market is located, and the market is as homegrown as the oceans of Newport Beach.
Known as “the last beachside cooperative of its kind in the United States,” Dory Fishing Fleet Market is truly a one-of-a-kind experience with an extensive, long-lived history that backs up its reputation. In late 1891, a fisherman began selling his fish to the public in an enterprising move that began to garner interest from the Newport Beach locals. By the time June of 1969 rolled around, Dory Fishing Fleet had already seen 78 years of business — and probably too many fish to count — and was registered as a permanent historic landmark.
“Crabby” Steve Escobar, the current owner, purchased Dory Fishing Fleet in 1991 and still owns and operates it to this day. A very friendly and approachable person with a good sense of humor, Escobar was there early on Saturday interacting with customers and overseeing that operations ran smoothly.
While we talked about the market, Escobar asked me if I had met Pierre Charest, the fleet’s sea urchin diver.
“Pierre saw a great white shark for the first time diving for urchins. That was the first time in over 20 years of diving. Can you imagine? It’s amazing, but also a pretty scary thing when you think about it. Really very life-affirming.” Escobar said.
Escobar and Charest are at Dory Fishing Fleet Market every Saturday offering their catch, which can be anything from rock crab, spider crab, sea snails, urchin and lobster.
Somewhat of local fishing legends, the Voyatzis Fishing Fleet is present on Saturdays and Sundays selling prawns, sea trout, sculpin and more. Three generations of fishermen have come from their family, beginning with Stratos Voyatzis who came here from Russia. His sons Marco and Coco are currently working at Dory Fishing Fleet Market today.
Two other fisherman operate out of Dory Fishing Fleet Market currently as well including West Caught Fish Company and Giacomo D’Amato Seafood, both who specialize in fish such as sea trout, red snapper and more.
As far as the fish harvest goes, Escobar states that they like to keep it local, but some fishing is also done in Asia to keep up with demands.
One very different change to the market is the incorporation of social media. Like many modern businesses, Escobar has embraced social media and it seems to be working. Escobar tweets out what kinds of fish, crab, and other goodies will be available each Friday, informing eager shoppers what will be available. While Escobar remembers a time when he could identify almost every person who came to the market regularly, those days are mostly gone. Now, there are more people than every lining up to claim fresh crab or yellowtail.
“I feel bad that people aren’t able to get their fish, but at the same time this has been a lot of fun,” Escobar said.
Stacy Vo, a regular at the Dory Fishing Fleet and who used to live right around the corner from it, waxes nostalgic on the days when it used to be simple to take home a haul of delicious spotted prawn without the massive crowd.
“It used to be no problem to get the fish of your choice when people started lining up at 4:30 in the morning. Now it’s a little different,” Vo said.
On the Saturday before New Year’s Eve, it was reported that people began standing in line around 2 a.m. to purchase fish. While I grew up in the area and remember seeing the fleet boats that have come to emblemize the Fishing Fleet, it was completely apparent I was new to standing in line for the fish.
Vo, who seemed to know her way around the ropes of Dory Fishing Fleet, informed me about the process of buying fish. There are separate lines for fish and crab. Among what was left (and again, I have to reiterate there wasn’t much) was rockfish, flounder, and sea urchin. Much of the variety had been picked over and the best quality of the recent catch was not leftover.
While Dory Fishing Fleet Market is answering the call of how to satisfy more customers than ever, other changes have not been a huge concern to Escobar.
In response to the challenges they face as fishermen, such as storms and re-protected closures that infringe upon fishing, Escobar said, “Whatever you do, there is always challenges. All in all, it’s a good job.”
In many ways, Dory Fishing Fleet market is as popular as it’s ever been, possibly even more so thanks to social media. I missed the boat this time, but next time I’ll be prepared to get some of that stone crab and more.
To learn more about Dory Fishing Fleet, visit the website at doryfleet.com. Follow “Crabby” Steve Escobar on Twitter @DoryFleet.