Wednesday, November 30, 2011
San Diego had its own cannery row - Tuna industry once dominated waterfront
“We ate lunch, but we didn't have a break for dinner. We worked straight through. It was pretty hard. . . . Sometimes there was only two or three hours of work. It just depended on how much fish the cannery had, how many boats came in. . . . We were only paid 33 cents an hour.”
– Katie Asaro,tuna packer, 1927
By Richard Crawford
Thousands of men and women once worked aboard San Diego-based fishing boats and in the local tuna canneries. For many years the region was known as “The Tuna Capital of the World.”
It was an industry that brought jobs and wealth to the region, as millions of cans of tuna shipped globally were stamped with the words “Packed in San Diego.”
San Diegans had been fishing for tuna since the 1880s, when Portuguese fishermen based at La Playa were catching albacore from small boats. Fish not consumed locally were pickled and shipped in barrels, usually to San Francisco.
A San Pedro sardine canner had a better idea. In 1903, Alfred Halfhill began experimenting with canning a variety of other fish, including longfin tuna, or albacore. Halfhill found albacore that was steam-cooked turned white and tasted something like cold chicken, leading to the legendary description “Chicken of the Sea.”
Halfhill aggressively marketed his “white meat tuna.” Within a few years, sales of canned albacore took off. Packed in olive oil in individually soldered cans, the tuna was shipped across the United States and enjoyed wide success, particularly in New York's Italian immigrant community.
San Diego's first large tuna cannery, the Pacific Tuna Canning Co., started up in 1911 at the foot of F Street. The plant would burn down the next year, but in 1913, it reopened at the foot of 26th Street. The Premier Packing Co. opened in 1912 at the foot of Crosby Street. Nine more tuna canneries opened on the San Diego waterfront in the next decade.
The first San Diego plants were small, employing fewer than 100 people each. A wave of consolidations dropped the number of canneries to five by 1920, but the overall number of employees grew.
San Diego Packing started in 1914 with 50 workers, but after absorbing other companies, it employed 400 by 1935. Van Camp Seafood swallowed three smaller companies and employed nearly 800 by 1932.
In the early 20th century, canneries were scattered along the waterfront from the foot of Laurel Street to Barrio Logan. By the 1930s, San Diego's “cannery row” would lie roughly between 16th and 28th Streets alongside fuel docks, shipbuilders and anchored tuna clippers.
From each cannery a wharf jutted into the bay where the fishing boats would unload the tuna. The process at the giant Van Camp cannery was typical. Large cranes hoisted baskets of tuna from the boats and emptied them into a flume, where the fish flowed a hundred yards into the cannery.
After inspection, the tuna moved on conveyor belts to a room where men gutted and washed the fish and then loaded them into ovens for “pre-cooking.”
After cooling, the tuna was sent to 60-foot cleaning tables, where women removed bones and skin and separated out the white meat. The tuna then was conveyed on large wood trays to the packing tables, where more women placed the meat by hand into cans.
Machinery then dropped measured quantities of salt and oil in the cans as they moved along a conveyor to the lidding machines.
Once sealed, the cans were steam-cooked, cooled and readied for shipment.
Katie Asaro cleaned fish and packed cans for the Westgate cannery.
“When I started in to learn how to pack, we were paid by the hour,” Asaro said. “Then we were on piecework. The faster we packed, the more trays we packed, the more money we made.”
Westgate paid its fish cleaners 30 cents for each tray.
It was repetitive, assembly-line labor. But the jobs were sought after, particularly during the Depression. The workers were always on call, ready to run to the canneries whenever the tuna boats arrived at the wharves.
“Sometimes there would be two, three or four boats at the same time,” Asaro remembered. “The cannery would be flooded with fish and it had to be packed.”
Although San Diego canneries and fishing boats dominated tuna production for most of the 1900s, profits and prospects were always cyclical.
As early as 1933, worrisome competition from Japan led the San Diego Sun to run a news story with the headline: “Tuna – A Doomed Local Industry.”
But local expertise beat back the competitors in the 1930s and continued to do so for decades.
When foreign competition threatened in the 1950s, the fishermen ended the tradition of hook-and-line fishing and converted their boats to seiners that used large nylon nets to corral schools of tuna.
The efficiency of the seiners restored prosperity, but it courted controversy. Netting schools of tuna killed dolphins and sharks caught in the nets.
Renewed foreign competition and rising costs ultimately forced cannery operations to go abroad.
In June 1982, Bumble Bee Seafoods closed its plant at the foot of Crosby Street, where San Diego women had canned tuna for 70 years. The Van Kamp Seafood cannery – San Diego's last tuna cannery – followed two years later.
Richard Crawford is a San Diego historian.