The importance of fishing in San Diego dates from 1602, when Vizcaíno made references to the fisheries in the Bay of San Miguel. As times passed, so did the importance of the various types of fishing which were done around San Diego, from the Indian hook and line fishing to the capture of whales, to fresh fish practiced by the Chinese, later the Japanese, Italians and Portuguese, to salt and dried fish, reaching its pinnacle with the tuna fishing.
Tuna fishing in San Diego is first reported in the late 1880’s, and was limited to albacore. By 1911, the first tuna was canned in San Diego, in the now defunct Pacific Tuna Canning Co. Although tuna was fished earlier, it was consumed either fresh or salted, and on a seasonal basis.
Vessels used for fishing in San Diego, and dating from as early as 1908, were mostly powered by sail. Soon, these gave way to the gasoline engine, which in turn was replaced by the diesel engine. These early boats were adaptations of the salmon boats of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
With the opening of fish canneries in San Diego, the need for better and larger boats was met. The fishing methods of the early albacore fishermen were twofold. First the Portuguese used sardines which were salted and used for bait as needed. After locating the albacore, they trolled and using an artificial lure, the fish would be attracted, whereupon the dried bait would be scattered. With baited hooks attached to hand lines, they would pull the fish to the edge of the boat where it would be gaffed aboard.
A second method of fishing was done by the Japanese who used a pole and line. The introduction of the pole and barbless hook by the Japanese and the adaptation and perfection of this fishing technique by the Portuguese became the prevalent method of fishing tuna for many years.
From the very beginning of tuna fishing, the cannery played a very important role. Not only did it create a need for fish, the cannery also became the main partner in the venture. Because of its financial position, the cannery was able to either loan or secure loans for new vessels. It also afforded the fishermen an opportunity to become an owner.Additionally, and of great importance was the total consumption by the cannery of all the fish caught, due to the ever increasing demand for tuna by the American housewife.
In the early 1900’s, the Japanese introduced ice boats, and soon the whole fleet was using the system. With time, and due to the migratory patterns of tuna, larger and longer range boats were built. Refrigeration was introduced, and new navigational gear developed, and soon the same men who earlier were fishing off the coast of San Diego, now were fishing as far away as Central and South America, and even the South Pacific.
During World War II, the tuna fleet came to play an important role in supply and reconnaissance missions in the Pacific. Many were the tuna fishermen who lost their lives and vessels in the conflict in the Pacific.
With the end of the war, tuna fishing was to enter a new era. A new method of fishing, purse seining, was introduced by the Slavs and once again adapted by the whole industry. Demand for canned tuna was once again high, and the growth cycle started anew.
New vessels with larger capacity and longer range were designed, new navigation equipment introduced, fishing techniques were improved and new ones found, but most important, new fishing banks were discovered. All of these factors led the San Diego tuna industry to become the best, most productive, efficient tuna industry in the world and its fishermen, to became the best rewarded.
It is important to note that the development of the tuna industry had some very significant and unique economic contributions to San Diego. As a business, it contributed to the creation of a large number of allied industries, including ship chandlers and boat building and repair.
Equally important was the economic contribution that the men of the tuna industry made to San Diego, for they not only worked out of this port, they also maintained families and homes here, and because of their earning power, became a very strong consumers.
The development of the tuna industry accompanied the growth of San Diego. Those days are no more. The industry’s one hundred and fifty plus boats are gone. San Diego’s loss, the loss to United States fisheries, is now growth for others. Socio-economic winds and political expediency have made an industry fade into the history books. But as time moves on, and memory of what once was the mightiest tuna industry in the world becomes dimmer, names such as Kondo, Abe, Miura, Medina, Zolezzi, Correia, Rosa, Brito, Madruga, Silva and many more, will never be forgotten.
José M. L. Alves
©San Diego, 1988
P.S. – In 2011, there are still six tuna boats that are owned by San Diegans. However the omnipresence of tuna boats on the waterfront, with their crews mending nets and telling their stories to the tourists, is now only a fading memory.