In 1960 San Diego was the most active tuna port in the world. The fleet consisted of about 135 boats. At any given time, 30 or 40 were tied up at the Embarcadero, in port between trips to the tropical grounds, to places as distant as the Galapagos Islands. There was the familiar sight of cotton bait nets drying after being cured or of the new, large nylon nets just coming into use. And nearby were the canneries that employed hundreds of people. And the steamy, billowing smell offish processing.
Now the canneries are gone. The tuna fleet, for the most part, consists of 46 boats fishing 4000 miles away in the western Pacific. Many of these super-seiners use helicopters for spotting schools and can carry 1500 tons of fish in their refrigerated holds. They cast nets big as a city block and deep as a ten-story building; together they harvest 200,000 tons of skipjack tuna a year and provide the bulk of the canned tuna in stores across the country.
But even though the tuna fleet has moved far away and works by international treaty in foreign waters, it's still based in San Diego, because most of the boats are owned by San Diego families — the Zolezzis, the Castagnolas, the DaRosas, the Virissimos, the DeSilvas, the Silvas, and others. Many have been in the tuna fishery for generations and are the descendants of fishermen who worked in the earliest days of the commercial tuna fishery back in the 1910s and 1920s, who have seen it go from the days of bait fishing to today's dolphin-safe markets.
The tuna fishery of the 1990s has many sources. One is the inland West Coast salmon fishery of the last century, first industrialized by Yankee salmon canners from Maine. After the turn of the century, when those canneries moved from the rivers of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California to the seacoast to process salmon from the offshore troll fishery, they soon began processing sardines as well. The West Coast sardine fishery became the largest in the world, with a yearly production greater than all California fisheries combined. California chickens fed on low-cost sardine fishmeal could lay 127 eggs a year rather than 118 and could also compete in the market with Midwestern broilers. In 1917 California boats caught 105 million pounds of sardines. In 1937 they delivered 726,000 tons to 52 canneries, and in 1945 Monterey took in 9000 tons in one day alone. But by late 1945, there were fewer sardines to be found, and the fishery collapsed entirely a few years later.
The first tuna fishermen were Portuguese whalers who had jumped Yankee whaling ships during gold rush times and then settled along the West Coast, forming communities in Crescent City, Monterey, and San Diego. They continued to whale from shore, rowing out to intercept migrating animals, towing them back in to strip their blubber and reduce it to oil. They also trolled for alba-core tuna and sold the cured fish to other Portuguese and to the Italians and Chinese. In San Diego, after Chinese fishermen were legislated out of business in the 1880s, Portuguese fishermen took over their abalone camps on Point Loma and their market fisheries, the one-day trips that yielded a catch destined for small retail fish stores.
In 1903, when there was a brief shortage of sardines off San Pedro, A.J. Halfhill, a grocer and canner, turned to albacore. They were abundant in Southern California then, due to a string of cool summers that had started in 1890, and they were available through the troll fishery. People thought Halfhill would never make a go of canned albacore because the flavor was too strong, but he came up with a method of steam baking that made the product much more palatable. Halfhill took his albacore to the Pomona Fair and later made a promotional tour of the U.S. by automobile. To convince housewives to add tuna to their families’ diets, the industry promoted the versatile fish as “the chicken of the sea.” The market was his alone until 1915, when the canner Gilbert Van Camp turned to tuna. During World War I, the market boomed, with increased need for low-cost protein sources. Tuna was an ideal source, and by 1920 canners in California could deliver a case of tuna to New York for less than a dollar.
By that time, Japanese fishermen had begun to dominate the San Diego fishery. It began in 1908, when fisheries professor Kondo Masaharu came to California on a world tour seeking fishing prospects. He was particularly interested in the Mexican abalone fishery abandoned by the Chinese and returned in 1912 with Japanese boats and crews to set up operations in Turtle Bay in Baja California Sur. Masaharu shipped dried abalone to China, and he watched the tuna markets develop. In 1918 he returned to Japan to recruit tuna fishermen, and in 1920, 70 men sailed across the Pacific on the schooner Toni Maru, singing village songs and eating sashimi made from dolphins that followed the ship. After 35 days they touched land at Santa Barbara and then sailed on to Ensenada. By 1923, according to government figures, the Japanese made up 50 percent of the tuna-fishing crews, and their boats accounted for 80 percent of the total catch.
It was the Japanese who introduced the technique of live-bait fishing, called “chumming.” Out at sea, a lookout would spot a school of fish, often by first sighting the dolphins that traveled with them. The boat would circle the school, and then a skilled crewman would throw live fish into the water, usually sardines or anchovies kept in wells at the stern. The chum triggered a feeding response in the tuna. Then, using strong bamboo poles, feathered lures resembling squid, and barbless hooks, they tossed the fish aboard in a frenzy of their own. When catching mature yellowfin tuna, which could weigh several hundred pounds, the fishermen used multiple poles and lines— two or three connected by an intricate swivel-hook-and-wire assembly to a single lure. Live-bait fishing was more productive than trolling with baited lines and was the basis for the golden age of the San Diego tuna fishery, from the 1920s into the late 1950s.