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Fish tales from a landmark: Newport Beach's century-old seafood market

Fish tales from a landmark: Newport Beach's century-old seafood market
Fishing family patriarch Stratos Voyatzis is shown with a photo of his younger self at the Dory Fleet market. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

At the Dory Fleet market in Newport Beach, local independent fishermen have been selling their catch directly to the public for more than 100 years. If anything, it's more popular today than it has ever been. The market, founded in 1891 and declared a historical landmark, has seen its share of ups and downs. Two of its members have been lost at sea, and tight new regulations designed to protect some overfished species have made it tough for fishermen to make a living. But today, the market is thriving, and so are the hardy survivors who make it happen.

Leslie Leal

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Leslie Leal is explaining to a customer the difference between yellowtail and yellowfin tuna. "Yellowfin is a Cadillac, yellowtail is a Volkswagen," she says. Convinced, the shopper ponies up $148 in cash for the almost 25-pound tuna. Leal asks how he wants it prepared, then shoves it to the two workers beside her for cleaning. Within minutes, the tuna is reduced to steaks, with its innards collected in a small bucket. Shopper John

Nguyen says his mother cures them in the sun, then cooks them to make a fantastic dipping sauce for vegetables.

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Just another happy customer for Leal, who is well into her fourth decade at the market. "I've been working here 43 years," she says, standing in front of a table piled with sculpin, two kinds of rock fish, sablefish (black cod), yellowtail and yellowfin tuna (all $6 a pound). "I married a dory fisherman when I was 21 and wanted to help out. He just passed away, and I sold the business to this young man." She's talking about Scott Breneman, himself a third-generation fisherman, originally working on the small boats called dories. "He saved my life and gave me a job. I hated to leave the market. I raised my two daughters here."

When Leal started at the market, there were 16 fishermen in the dory fleet. Now, she says, there are six. "We had two die, but most

of them left because they just couldn't do it. You either can do it or you can't, and as a fisherman you find that out pretty quickly. Making a living off the ocean, only the tough ones remain."

RECIPE: Salt-roasted rockfish with tomato-olive salsa

The number of fishermen isn't the only thing that's changed. Over the years so has the number of fish. "At first we had plenty of fish," Leal says. "In the '70s we were even catching fish to sell off the pier. That went on for a good 20 years, then you could see the decline. The catches got smaller and smaller. Then [the California Department of] Fish and Game got involved. You've seen all the regulations they put in. At first, it was rough for fishermen and everyone complained, but now that they can see it's working — that we're catching fish that we haven't seen for a while — then they just shut right up."

The Voyatzis family

In 1981 Stratos Voyatzis — a sculptor of Greek and Armenian extraction newly emigrated from Russia and in need of a job to support his growing family — went fishing with a friend at Newport Pier. He met an Italian fisherman who gave him a job cleaning fish. Now there are three generations of the Voyatzis family working at the dory market: Stratos and his wife, Vailia, their grown sons, Coco and Marco, Marco's wife, Nicki, and Coco's son Dimitri.

"I was 9 years old when I started working here baiting hooks," Marco says. "Summertime I'd bait hooks three months, then when school started, I'd go there and then go back to work after school baiting hooks. When I was 14, I started going out on the boat and helping out. When I was 16 or 17, I was already running my own boat." Today, Marco's table selling live spot prawns ($20 a pound) is one of the market's hottest draws. Customers stand in line for an hour — at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning.

When he started, the family had one boat, which they'd roll out through the surf to fish just offshore. "You'd go out really close, come in at 8 in the morning, roll the boats back up, sell your stuff, and then maybe go back out in the afternoon," he says. Now the family has four boats, bringing in trapped shrimp, crab and lobster from as far as 70 miles out, and line-caught rock fish, sculpin, sanddab and black cod from near-shore (all fish are $6 a pound).

"We went through some pretty tough times with regulations, it closed some fisheries down and really almost killed the fleet. But somehow we stuck it out and turned it all around. Now it's good," Marco says. "Our kids, if they want to do this, they actually have a future to be able to support their families. We sacrificed a little for the first few years, but in the end it was a lot better for the fishery."

'Crabby' Steve Escobar

"Crabby" Steve Escobar is the other hot number at the market — if anything, the lines for his rock crabs and whelks ($2 a pound) are even longer than those for spot prawns. He's been selling at the market since 1991 and is the group's main voice online with his Twitter account (@doryfleet), which has almost 1,000 followers.

"Social media really helps," he says, sounding like any other modern marketer. "That's when this market really started to take off. More important, though, we focus on taking care of our customers." Escobar's rock crabs — separated male and female because some shoppers prefer the egg-laden females — are almost an automatic sale with many of the shoppers. But the whelks have taken a little more convincing. "When I first started selling snails, not many people were buying them," he says. "Then I put up a sign saying 'Poor man's abalone' and that helped a lot."

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The current success of the market has been great for business but something of a mixed blessing in other ways. "It used to be that I knew 80 to 90% of my customers on a first-name basis. Now it's more like 10%. It's just gotten crazy, and

a lot of my older customers stay away because they don't want to have to stand in line. Business is great, but it's kind of bittersweet."

Stephanie Mutz

Santa Barbara diver Stephanie Mutz drives down to Newport every Saturday morning, the back of her car loaded with 500 pounds of sea urchins and sea cucumbers ($5 apiece). At the market she's met by her mother and father, who help her sell and, if asked, will crack open and clean your urchins for a perfect seaside breakfast.

Mutz is something of a sea star. Her urchins are name-checked on the menus at David Lentz's Hungry Cat restaurants and at Michael Cimarusti's Providence and Connie and Ted's. She drives down to Newport every Saturday, she says, because she's engaged to "Crabby" Steve. "That's the only way I'd get to see him. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

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FOR THE RECORD

Aug. 24, 8:46 a.m.: This article states that sea urchin diver Stephanie Mutz and fisherman "Crabby" Steve Escobar are engaged. They are dating.

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But she also appreciates the atmosphere in Newport. "I really enjoy the cultural dynamic here, the cultural diversity. In Santa Barbara, people say 'What is that? It looks gross. Ewwww.' Here they say, 'What is that? How do you cook it? I'll take 10.'"

Legislation could bring more fish markets to California

Markets where the general public can legally buy directly from fishermen are rare in California, but that might be changing. A bill has been introduced to the state Assembly that would permit exemptions to state law that would allow them under certain situations, much like farmers markets do with produce. Assembly Bill 226 would allow the creation of nonpermanent fishermen's markets that could sell fresh or frozen fish that had been legally caught by permitted commercial fishermen or raised by aquaculturists.The bill, introduced by Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and co-sponsored by state Assembly and Senate members from both parties is now before the Appropriations Committee.

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What you need to know

The market is just north of the Newport Pier. Park at the beach parking lot, which is free before 8 a.m. Though technically the market is open Wednesdays through Sundays, most of the action takes place Saturday mornings and, to a lesser extent, Sunday mornings. Most sales are cash-only.

The market opens at 5:30 a.m. and closes at noon, at least theoretically. Most fishermen are sold out well before that. Lines form early and can be quite long, but those are only for rock crab and spot prawns. If you want to buy fish, you can just walk in. For rock crab and spot prawns, it's best to arrive by 6 a.m. to make sure they don't run out. Be aware that some shoppers can be fairly aggressive; be prepared to stand your ground.

Bring an ice chest if you're planning to buy much fish, and wear comfortable old clothes. It is almost impossible to avoid getting splattered by the fish cleaners while you're shopping.

Fish is almost always sold whole. But if you ask, you might well find another shopper who will split, say, a 25-pound yellowtail with you. Workers will scale, gut and cut fish into fillets and steaks for you.

2111 W. Oceanfront, Newport Beach, (949) 632-5939, www.doryfleet.com

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