You Must Remember This: dory fleet


I don’t think most people buying fish from the dory fleet realize quite how unique it is. Established in 1891, it is considered to be the last beachside fishing cooperative in the country. Not just in Orange County or California. In the whole darned country. Remarkable longevity for a job that requires a great deal of hard work and a certain amount of luck.

I’ve always thought of fishing, at least the kind I do, as a very leisurely pastime. You throw your line out and then you read several chapters of your favorite novel and perhaps a fish bites, perhaps it doesn’t, but it’s been a lovely day. That is not dory fishing. A number of years ago, a reporter went out with one of the fisherman and was stunned at the constant high level of labor required, and there’s more than a small element of danger. Several members of the fleet have been lost over the years, so it is safe to say that those who make up the Newport dory fleet are a hardy lot. However, I have a feeling that if earlier dory men could see them they would think the current members have a life of comparative ease. Yes, today’s fleet members get up early and brave all sorts of weather and do a great deal of backbreaking work to bring home the freshest of fresh fish, but, as their forbearers would point out, today’s dory fleet is all equipped with motors. Those earlier fishermen did all of the above AND rowed their boats. It’s not that there weren’t motors back in the day, but for a good part of that day propellers were fixed. This meant if you came into the beach, which the dory fleet did (and does), as soon as you hit the sand your propeller was destroyed, so for decades dory men rowed.  They rowed their boats out to the fishing grounds, and they rowed back with their boats full of fish. All that rowing in addition to the other work involved – they were powerful men.

One, Walt Dyson, also served on Newport’s police force. My father remembered him as a large, quiet fellow who would walk slowly through the loud and often unruly crowds on a Balboa summer weekend. His very presence tended to quiet things, but if someone got too far out of hand, Dyson didn’t arrest him. He didn’t prod him with his stick. He simply lifted the person up by the front of his clothes, gave him a couple of good shakes, then set him back down. That was enough for even the most inebriated to come under control. While a good stiff shake seems much kinder to me than being shot with a taser, I’m sure some group or another would find it cruel and inhumane, so such methods are probably best left in the past.

The future of the dory fleet provides an example for the current General Plan Advisory Committee. Today, the fleet exists at the whim of the city council. It is council policy that an area west of the Newport Pier be reserved for the use of the dory fleet. I can’t imagine a future council deciding to rescind that, but then a lot of things happen that I didn’t imagine so…what sort of protection does the fleet have besides a council policy? For that we go to the current General Plan, specifically the Historical Resources element. Unlike a few of our city structures, the fleet is not on the federal or state register of historical places. It is, though, on the city’s register. So what kind of protection does that provide? The introduction to the element states that the city “has established the Newport Beach Register of Historical Property to recognize structures or properties of local historical…significance,” and names the dory fleet as one of those, so no worries, right? Well, recognition is not exactly protection. I may recognize that my neighbor is being attacked by an assailant with a baseball bat, but after recognizing that, I might just hightail it for my own safety. But surely the policies that follow clarify and strengthen? Let us see. HR1.2 “encourages” the preservation of structures. HR1.4 “encourages” alternatives to destruction. I “encourage” my dog to do all sorts of things, but he pretty much does what he pleases, and the policies that follow suggest the same thing. HR1.5 requires that “proposed development that is located on a historical site…incorporate a physical link to the past,” while HR1.6 requires that “prior to the issuance of a demolition or grading permit developers…retain a qualified consultant to record the structure.”

In other words, while we won’t really do much to prevent destruction, by golly we’re going to be really strict about putting up a statue or a plaque or taking photographs so we’ll all know what was once there. In other words, without some stronger language, we could have a statue of a fish memorializing what was once the home of the only existing beach fishing cooperative in the country, or if a statue is asking too much, for sure we’ll have some photos.

Hopefully, our new General Plan will provide a bit more “encouragement” when it comes to protecting our history. Meanwhile, in the interest of historical preservation as well as your personal health, eat plenty of fish purchased from our own individual and unique dory fleet.


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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