Chesapeake is one of Southern California's five biggest fishmongers

Had its beginnings in the Yugoslavian village of Comisa

Nick Vitalich, Jr. scans the oyster-colored sky for rain. All he wants is a bit more time. Behind him is a pinewood crate attached to a cable and winch, which dangles about four feet off the ground. He peeks into the box, filled with 200 pounds of pink and orange rockfish, and pulls out an unwanted gray mackerel. Crouching low, he jams his left shoulder under the crate, lifts one end, and dumps the fish into a galvanized container large enough to hold a ton of seafood.

Before he climbs into the yellow Toyota forklift to cart the fish into the warehouse, he points at the skipper of the seiner that has just docked. “You’ve got to understand the Sicilian temperament,” says Vitalich, a Yugoslav. “They start out everything they say and do from the perspective that life is very hard, that they’re working and working but barely making ends meet, even if they’re doing all right. They’re a very sad people in their work.”

As Vitalich hauls the cargo to Chesapeake Fish Company, on the waterfront near Harbor Drive and Market Street, a menacing sou’wester blows in cold from over the ocean, bringing with it a trace of rain. A man named Joe Engrande ambles over to the pier from the nearby People’s Fish market and restaurant, of which he is part owner. He is wearing black rubber boots and a yellow apron. “Where’s Whitey?” Engrande asks a man on a fishing boat. The skipper of the craft points out past Coronado and says,“He’s still out there. Man, he’s tough. We came in last night, it was getting so bad. Hit a south swell.” Engrande, who comes from an old Sicilian fishing family, turns back toward his store. “Those guys are taking their lives in their hands when they go out in weather like this,” he says in a voice of admiration and frustration. “My oldest boy works on a tuna boat. He lost his thumb and part of a finger in some machinery on the boat. It’s a rough life. I hope my youngest boy doesn’t ever want to fish. He’s in school. I don’t think he wants to. Jeez, I hope not.”

On a different day, when the sun is shin- ing and the weather is warm, two fishermen have pulled their creaky 40- footer against the pier. They are slicing open three thresher sharks that were trapped in the boat’s gill net: The skipper, Salvatore Russo, yells at a young Italian on the dock and says the roller broke, so they had to haul in the net by hand. Both Sal and the young man are compatriots from Palermo, Sicily. The young one is newly arrived; Sal, who is short and swarthy and in his middle 40s, has fished the waters off San Diego for 14 years.

That morning Sal and his mate had left for the open sea to catch rockfish for a local seafood market, but because the roller broke, they had to return early and be satisfied with the sharks they had already snagged. When they arrived back at the pier, the man from the market said he didn’t want sharks, so Sal went to Chesapeake and talked to the manager, who agreed to buy them for 65 cents a pound, cleaned. Sal said later,“I don’t like fishing for those other guys. All the time, they cry to me. They say, ‘Hey Sally, go fish for me.’ Then when I come back and they don’t like what I got, they cry. Waa waa.”

Sal wears a pair of faded Rugged K overalls, thigh-length rubber boots, a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue baseball cap. His mate, a gray-bearded man of 50 with a finely weathered face, wears a white thermal undershirt and a yellow apron. The old graybeard digs a short-bladed knife under the left pectoral fin of the biggest shark and carves forward under the gills, splitting the shark open. He sticks his fist into the open wound and removes the warm, bloody innards, tossing them onto the boat deck. As he does so, four fully developed baby sharks spill from the open gut onto the deck next to the pile of steamy entrails. Unperturbed, the fisherman turns the mother shark over and cleans the other side, then cuts off the head and the long, flat tail. He washes his hands in a gray, plastic bucket, mixing blood and seawater.

David Ptak, manager of Chesapeake, cranks the pierside electric winch and lifts the carcasses from the boat onto the waiting forklift.“Hey!” yells Sal from the deck. “You got it!” A crowd of onlookers approaches from a nearby seafood restaurant. Sal grabs hold of the shark heads, jams winch hooks through the eyes, and hangs the heads in a grisly public display. Most of the gawkers avert their eyes and walk away. Sal climbs from his boat and follows Ptak into the warehouse, where the fish are weighed. Ptak writes out a check for $325: a day’s work for Sal and his mate.

That money, though, is not all profit, as any fisherman will attest. There are boat payments, equipment repairs, gasoline, and other expenses that must be considered before salaries. And to make matters worse — to make life even rougher than it already is — Sal and his colleagues must contend with a ban on sword- fish accidentally caught in their gill nets. “Hey, what am I gonna do?” he asks.“A swordish, he swims into my net. I gotta cut him loose. Why not I give him to the poor people? It’s nuts, I tell you. It’s already dead, but I gotta cut him loose. When they do stuff like this, you know what happens to guys like me?” He stamps his foot onto the cement bulwark of the dock and grinds his foot as if crushing a burning cigarette.

Although Ptak (pronounced pea-tack) was not expecting the sharks, he bought them anyway. Chesapeake Fish Company, the largest seafood wholesaler in San Diego, often finds itself currying favor with the local fishermen to maintain good relations. “We’re trying to keep as many local boats operating as possible,” says 36-year-old Ptak. “We sometimes do that at a loss of money, because it will prove good for us in the long run. Some of those fishermen wouldn’t meet if Chesapeake stopped buying fish. It would be difficult to admit that Chesapeake is keeping them going, but that is basically the case. We could possibly get all the fish we need from Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, and at a cheaper price, but the local fisherman is a convenient safety valve. Who knows how long the Northwest can keep up the high productivity it has now? In 15 years, I might be relying on the local boats to keep us in fish. In the long run, I need those guys.”

Chesapeake is one of the top five wholesalers in Southern California, processing more than ten million pounds of fish a year.“We always need fish,” says Ptak,“so I don’t dis- courage any new fisherman.” On the other hand, if Chesapeake had just received 20,000 pounds of fish from the Northwest, and already had three local boats out fishing that day, and a fisherman said he wanted to go out for Chesapeake, Ptak would likely turn him down. “There are two rules I have,” Ptak says.“If you didn’t call me before you went out, then as far as I’m concerned you didn’t go out and I don’t want to hear about it. And also, with the exception of special circumstances, I don’t buy fish on Fridays, because we don’t work on Saturdays. Now if a guy was having problems and he couldn’t get back because of engine trouble, or if he was sick, I’ll make an exception.” As he explains, a loudspeaker voice calls him to the telephone. He lifts the receiver and speaks with a permisionario, a Mexican fish dealer who has permission to cross the border to sell his fish. “ Bueno,” says David. “¿Quien habla? ”He learns that the fish dealer, also called a jefe (meaning boss), is in Mexicali with a truckload of 4500 pounds of ice- packed sea bass. Ptak puts the phone down and calls for Vito DeMaria, a part owner and 30-year veteran of Chesapeake. Although it is a Friday, they decide to break one of their rules and accept the fish, because they are nearly depleted. Vito says they need the load that same afternoon. Ptak tells this to the jefe but the Mexican demands an extra day. “It’s tomorrow or not at all, he says,” Ptak informs Vito. “Okay,” sighs Vito, nodding his head.“Tomorrow. But tell him to make it early.” The deal is made.

There are 23 wholesalers in San Diego. Union Fish is the only one comparable to Chesapeake in size. In Los Angeles County there are about 25 major wholesalers and 75 smaller ones. Few of them, though, count ten million pounds of fish a year. “When you get into the tens of thousands of pounds of fish, you’re getting into our ball game,” says Nick Vitalich, Jr., whose grandfather founded the Chesapeake Fish Company 65 years ago. “We’re able to buy that sort of quantity at one time from one boat, whereas the smaller wholesalers couldn’t handle that amount. Sometimes we don’t pay the highest price, but quantity is no object. The fisherman wouldn’t have to go door to door trying to peddle his fish. And if he’s moving around trying to sell it, he’s losing fish- ing time.” Chesapeake in turn sells the fish to every major restaurant and supermarket chain in San Diego (except Safeway, which is served by Union Fish), and also ships fresh fish to San Francisco and as far away as Japan. “With jets,” says Vitalich, “distance is no barrier.”

At eight on a Monday morning in the Chesapeake warehouse, an electric insect- killing device with a voltaic-blue light makes a crisp snapping noise whenever it electrocutes another wayward fly. An extensive air-conditioning system cleans the air, leaving barely a trace of fishiness, despite the open boxes of newly packed seafood pressed against the 30-foot-high walls. The warehouse is chilly from the frozen air escaping the two large freezer rooms in the back, whenever a worker enters them. Men are driving electric carts around the loading dock. Fish cutters in yellow aprons and calf-high, brown rubber boots slice ice-cold sea trout on a 12-foot-long metal table. There is not nearly as much noise as one might expect. The atmosphere is one of purposeful efficiency. The red-cement floor glistens from the frequent hose washings and a fish head slaps against the wet concrete. At one end of the cutting table is a galvanized tank for the fish fillets: at the other end is an old barrel for the fish remnants. Next to the remnant barrel, steam rises from a five-gallon plastic bucket, filled with hot water. The cutters immerse their leather-gloved hands in the bucket every five minutes; the warm liquid fills the gloves and acts as insulation from the numbing iciness of the chilled fish.

After the trout is cut into fillets, it is weighed, wrapped in plastic, packaged in card- board boxes, and stacked on wooden flats. The flats are carried onto the loading plat- form by men driving forklifts, divided according to the order invoices as to which market or restaurant gets which fish, and are then stowed in one of the refrigerated trucks backed up to the platform. The remnants, also, are packaged together, soon to be trucked to a rendering plant in Los Angeles for use as fertilizer.

All orders to and from Chesapeake are placed through phone operators in a glassed-in office overlooking the warehouse.“Let’s say a guy from the Chart House restaurant calls,” explains Ptak.“He asks,‘What do you got?’ I say we have sea bass or red snapper or whatever we have that day. He says. ‘Okay, give me a hundred pounds of sea bass.’ An invoice is made, the orders are packed in boxes, and the deliveries are made in trucks. The restaurants call the day before to place their order, and we try to have the trucks off by eight or nine the next morning. There’s not much to it, really. One thing you should understand about the fish: no matter how much fancy equipment you have, or how big the company is, all it comes down to is that one guy pulls the fish out of the water, he gives it to us to cut, and we give it to someone else so the consumer can eat it.” He smiles to himself at the utter simplicity of it all. “Very basic.”

Chesapeake Fish Company had its beginnings in the Yugoslavian village of Comisa on the island of Vie. A 16- year-old boy named John Nicholas Vitalich was becoming tired of being the number-three oarsman on a sardine boat. His village seemed more and more provincial to him, and he began to look toward America as his future. His girlfriend, Margarita, worked in the Comisa sardine factory. One afternoon in 1910, John told Margarita that he was definitely leaving for the United States, and that he would send for her when he had established himself.

Vitalich had just turned 17 when he arrived in San Pedro, California, to take a job in a lumberyard. There he met an immigrant Italian named Joe Camillo, also 17. For two years they labored in the San Pedro lumberyard. In many ways, they both felt comfortable in the New World, because many other Italians and Yugoslavs had settled in the same area, but as young men eager for success, they both wanted something more than routine comfort. Soon their vision was directed toward San Diego and its burgeoning fish industry. Papa (as Vitalich was soon to become known along the local waterfront) saw a great advantage in San Diego’s proximity to Mexico. There are approximately 900 miles of coastline on either side of the Baja California peninsula, and Papa thought he could be one of the first Americans to establish permanent — and profitable — ties with the Baja fishermen.

Papa sent for Margarita as promised, and in 1912 they were married in San Pedro. A year later they became the parents of Nicholas Anthony Vitalich, and a year after that they were joined by a second son, John. In the year of Nicholas Anthony’s birth, Papa and Margarita moved to San Diego, along with Joe Camillo. Camillo worked for a time in a tuna cannery, while Papa was employed as a laborer with the Coronado Fish Company, a small business less than a decade old. Papa Vitalich was soon promoted to manager of the company, and by 1915 had saved enough money to buy Coronado Fish Company from the owners, renaming it Chesapeake Fish Com- pany. Camillo soon left the tuna cannery and began the J.J. Camillo fish brokerage firm next door to Chesapeake on the waterfront at the foot of Broadway. Camillo became the local representative for producers in the Pacific North- west; now the firm represents producers and buyers nation- wide and in Canada. Today, although the locations have shifted a few blocks to the south, Camillo and Chesapeake remain side by side.

In the 1920s, Papa Vitalich solidified many of his contacts in Mexico. “The agreements Papa established with the Mexicans were something more than an understanding, but not as formalized as a contract,” says Papa’s grandson, Nick Vitalich, Jr., who is now 36 and who will own the company after his father and his uncle John. “The relationship began in about 1922 and has continued through about two or three generations. For example, there is a man named Vicente Castro, who homesteaded in San Ysidro below Santo Tomas before World War II and who fished for my grandfather. Now his son, Vicente Castro, Jr., is working for us here in the warehouse.” By the 1950s, Papa’s two sons, Nicholas and John, were running the company, although the patriarch was very much in evidence.“My grandfather used to think he was the king of the waterfront,” Nick, Jr. recalls, “and he let everybody know it.” A local fisherman, Pete Buompensero, whose father fished for Chesapeake as Pete does today, remembers seeing Papa lording over the docks 25 years ago. “I remember Nick’s grandfather,” Buompensero says, “standing out here on the pier, always with a big cigar in his mouth. And man, when he yelled, every- body jumped.”

Papa died in 1959, just as Chesapeake began to expand simultaneously with the city of San Diego. “They always said that Papa died on a week- end so we wouldn’t have to close,” says Nick. The days when Papa was alive are still remembered with fondness by longtime Chesapeake employees like Vito DeMaria, 56, who joined the firm around 1950. “In the old days,” says DeMaria, “back in the ’50s, before we got all this modern stuff, we used to cook and process lobsters live from Mexico. We’d get a ton, a ton and a half a week. We’d cook them up until eleven or twelve at night, go home, sleep a couple of hours, then go back and cook some more. My blood is on the walls here. I always say that. I say,‘My blood is on the walls here.’”

Family tradition is almost sacred on the San Diego water- front. Allegiances are made by grandfathers and honored by sons and grandsons. Through the years, five major families have emerged as leaders in the San Diego fishing industry (excluding the tuna industry, which is generally considered apart from the rest because of its vastness). Besides the Vitalich and Camillo clans, there are the Saccio family, which runs the Fish Factory restaurant and San Diego Fish Company, a wholesale outlet; the Ohio family, which owns the Anthony’s Seafood Restaurant chain; and the Busalacchi family, one branch of which owns People’s Fish market and restaurant, and another branch of which owns Union Fish Company, the only other large wholesaler in San Diego besides Chesapeake.

The interrelationships of the five families through the years have often been turbulent, but always interesting. “It’s really, in a sense, a microcosm,” says Nick Vitalich, Jr., “because you can see how the total spectrum of emotions is expressed on the waterfront. You can really see how war is made and how peace is made. And there have been battles. For example, Tod Ghio [a founder of the Anthony’s restaurant chain] and my uncle didn’t talk to each other for over a year. They can’t remember why, but now they’re going to spend a month together in Hawaii. That feud happened more than 13 years ago. And I remember Cosimo Busalacchi and Charlie Saccio, who have been right next door to each other for years, still don’t speak to each other. It’s been 20 years. One night I went out drinking with Cosimo, and I said,‘Why don’t you talk with Charlie?’ And he said, ‘You know, I can’t remember.’ The sons, they talk to each other and do business together, though.”

According to Vitalich, a lot of the Old World tradition has faded from family life — except on the waterfront. “As soon as you cross the line on the waterfront,” he says, “it’s actively there, the old ways. You will not believe the dif- ference. It’s like in a sense going to another country. It’s very emotional out there. You work a great deal with your emotions when you’re in an Old World business. Everything is very verbal. We’re all yellers.”

If the local industry can be called Old World, then its counterpart in Mexico — from which Chesapeake obtains as much as 50 percent of its fish — is absolutely primitive. There are hundreds of small fishing camps lining the uneven Baja coastline, about 25 of which do business with Chesapeake regularly. The camps vary in size, with as many as 50 skiffs in one camp. The skiffs are generally outboard, fiberglass boats with 55 horsepower, manual-start engines. Two fishermen take a 20-foot skiff 30 or more miles out to sea in search of sea bass, halibut, yellowtail, rock cod, and shark. Using no compass, navigating only by the sun and stars, they fish in water sometimes 600 feet deep. A line with 20 hooks is set in place, and is rolled up at the end of the day with the aid of a roller drum. A good day’s catch is about 300 pounds of fish.

The fish is brought into camp and weighed, then loaded into an old, American-built truck with an unrefrigerated, 12-foot-long box on the back. The weighing is done by a jefe, who gives each fisherman a chit indicating the size of the catch. The jefe, who owns the truck, runs the camp. “If it weren’t for the

jefe,” says Chesapeake manager Ptak,“the fishermen would be wasting their time.” The fish are packed on ice each day, for up to twelve days, until the boss has enough to make a trip to San Diego worth his while. A jefe from San Felipe might only need 2000 pounds to justify the trip; a jefe from San Juanico, halfway down the Baja peninsula, might need as much as 15,000 to 30,000 pounds before he starts out for the United States. “Sometimes a jefe waits tooong,” says Ptak, “but we can tell. In the fishing industry you smell your mistakes. If a guy comes up here to unload, and I don’t like what I see, I’ll close the door and send him back to Mexico. I’ll give the guy his expense money, but I won’t buy his fish.”

If the fish are accepted, as they almost always are, a check is written for the agreed-upon price. With the money he has been paid, the jefe goes shopping for his men, who have made a list of the items they want. He purchases all the goods in the United States, then travels back to the Baja camp, where he deducts the price of the grocery items from the fishermen’s salaries and pays them. The jefe brings everything into the camp — food, clothing, beer. Most of the camps are very rudimentary. Some of them may have a tiny shack in which a hired woman will cook basic, unadorned meals, but in most camps, the fishermen cook their own meals over open fires, and sleep at night beneath their upturned skiffs.

Not nearly so austere, but almost as important to Chesapeake, are the fisheries of the Pacific Northwest (an area which covers, for Chesapeake’s purposes, the coast from central California up to Alaska). There are about nine major types of seafood produced in this area, including salmon (in the spring and summer), king crab (almost always frozen, because it does not hold up well on ice), Pacific red snapper, sole (Dover, English, and Petrale), ocean perch, rex sole, rock cod, ling cod, and butterfish.

The processors of the Northwest work in a manner similar to Chesapeake, except many sell only to four or five major wholesalers. The fish is shipped by truck or air freight to San Diego. It’s possible for fish caught off the Washington coast on Monday morning to be served at a San Diego restaurant for Tuesday’s lunch.

Fish that comes from northern California, Oregon, and Washington is considerably cheaper to wholesalers than the same fish caught off the San Diego coast, according to Ptak. In the Northwest, the fishermen use trawlers with a huge net that looks like a butterfly net and is capable of catching entire schools of fish at once. San Diego fishermen use gill nets, which are often 250 fathoms long and six fathoms deep, and stretch across the ocean like a tennis net. In the gill-net method, a fish swims into the net and is trapped by its gills as it attempts to withdraw. The net is hauled aboard the boat, and each fish is plucked from the net and tossed into the hold. Many more man-hours are involved with gill nets than with the Northwest’s trawlers. Trawlers are impractical in San Diego because they require a flat, sandy bottom, and can’t function over the rocky peaks and valleys of San Diego’s ocean floor.

Chesapeake has about 40 fishermen locally who fish for the firm on a regular basis. There are no contracts involved. “About the only regulations I put on them,” says Ptak, “are that they tell me beforehand when they’ll be back and what sort of fish they’re going after.” Local fishermen primarily catch rock cod, snapper, shark, yellowtail, sea bass, and halibut, plus lobster and abalone.

But throughout the West Coast fisheries, from Baja California to Alaska, there is the fear that what the fishermen are catching — the snapper, the salmon, the sea bass, and the rest — are being consumed faster than they can be replenished.“To make skinless, boneless fillet from the fish I get,” says Ptak, “I get an average yield of only about 33 percent. That means I put 67 percent in the trashcan. As Americans we’ve been trained to look for skinless, boneless, clean, white fish. In other cultures, it’s the consumer’s stomach instead of his eye that counts; fish-head soup and like that.” While Ptak and Vitalich are not advocating fish-head soup, necessarily, they do contend that there is almost nothing that swims in the sea (and several things that just sit there) that cannot be eaten. Ptak says,“We are using more and more underutilized species, like geoducks.” (Pronounced gooey ducks, but more often called horse’s dicks, because of their resemblance to a stallion’s reproductive organ.) “The Japanese started harvesting geoducks off Canada a long time ago,” Ptak continues. “A geoduck is a clam; it weighs around five pounds. The edible portion is the suction muscle. It tastes great; it just looks sort of strange. We are also educating people to eat shark and squid. I teach a few seafood cooking classes, and it takes a certain amount of patience; people are slow to try new things.”

This education process is not entirely selfless on the part of the Chesapeake man- agement. Vitalich estimates that their sales volume has increased “an easy 60 percent” over the past two years because of the public’s increased awareness of seafood and its greater willingness to experiment. “Two or three years ago,” says Vitalich, “you couldn’t give squid away; now it’s a deli- cacy. But the things we’re get- ting into now have been delicacies in Europe and Asia for years and years. Shark has been gourmet; squid has been gourmet. The Japanese eat sea urchins.”

Probably a greater dilemma to the average San Diego consumer than the choice between geoduck and trout is the choice between fresh and frozen. What’s the difference? All fish is first iced, but not necessarily frozen. Ice is the backbone of the fishing industry; fresh fish is packed on flaked ice. Chesapeake has an ice machine in its ware- house that makes up to 10,000 pounds of ice a day, “and we can use every bit of it,” says Ptak. Without a doubt, fresh fish is to be preferred over frozen (the taste being superior when fresh), but if frozen correctly, it can be nearly as palatable as fresh. “If it’s not frozen correctly,” Ptak says, “it is wasted. Freezing robs moisture. The muscle structure — the texture of the fish — is also changed in the freezing. In some fish — Icelandic cod, for example, the kind they usually use in fish and chips — freezing is accepted, because it causes a firmness the fish wouldn’t otherwise have. The firmness has become traditional in the minds and stomachs of the consumers.”

One of the ironies of the San Diego fish eater is that he is not generally considered as much a seafood epicure as his counterpart in, say, San Fran- cisco, even though Chesapeake sends hundreds of thousands of pounds of sea bass, halibut, and yellowtail to restaurants in San Francisco every year. “San Diego really started to blossom as a real seafood town in the last decade,” says Vitalich, “but really only in the last two years has it become at all sophisticated. San Francisco still has the edge in terms of quantity of gourmet restaurants. We’re getting a number of giant restaurants here all of a sudden that are good and fun and exciting. But in San Francisco, there are probably 50 or 60 excellent seafood restaurants, where here we have Anthony’s Star of the Sea Room and L’Escargot; after that, what else can you think of?” The lack of gourmet seafood restaurants, says Vitalich, can be attributed to several causes, not least of all being that San Diego is a comparatively younger city than San Francisco, and the population center is not as concentrated here as there.“But as these condominium projects begin going up in downtown San Diego,” Vitalich says, “and as more young people move back into the city, I’m sure you’ll see a lot more of these exquisite, graceful restaurants springing up.”

As the consumer expands his seafood appreciation, and as the fishermen explore new areas and methods, so the business of the wholesalers changes. Whereas before, many of the people involved in seafood wholesaling were the undereducated manual laborers, the industry is now attracting bright, college-educated types. Chesapeake manager Ptak, for instance, has three bachelor degrees from San Diego State University (in geography, anthropology, and philosophy) and Vitalich has a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Notre Dame and a master’s degree in community development from Columbia.

But even while talking about sophisticated gourmet restaurants and the need to educate the public, Vitalich is literally elbow deep, one realizes, as he sorts fish on a rainy day on the pier behind the warehouse.“I think people are beginning to realize,” he says, pulling his rain hood over his head and scanning the gray skies, “that we really have to develop and help the sea achieve all that it’s capable of. If we just keep taking without putting anything back, we are in a very short time going to find ourselves in a very poor position.” He drives the yellow Toyota forklift up to another gal- vanized container of pink and orange rockfish, prepares to cart it away, and calls to the skipper of the fishing boat, “Let’s get this fish inside. It’s going to start raining.

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