San Diego tuna industry, part one (opens in a new tab so you won’t lose your place here)
The history of San Diego’s tuna fishing industry began in the 1890s with Chinese and Japanese fishermen. By the 1920s, Italian and Portuguese had become the majority and would remain so into the 1980s. Many fisherman who took up residence in San Diego got their start in the North Atlantic where the fishing days were accompanied by raging storms and bitter cold. To them, the San Diego weather and West Coast fishing were a huge magnet.
San Diego was known as the Tuna Capital of the World from the early 1930s through the late 1970s. With over 40,000 people employed in the industry, and with a financial influence of over $30 million a year, the tuna industry was third only to the Navy and aircraft industries.
Sadly, most of San Diego’s tuna fishing industry today is gone. Remaining are Bumble Bee Foods’ world headquarters, Tuna Harbor and Tuna Harbor Park in downtown San Diego, and a tuna fishing memorial on Shelter Island. All of those are in high-traffic tourist areas. About two miles south of downtown San Diego is the heart of long-time industrial San Diego with railroads, the largest Navy base on the West Coast, and tuna canning plants. There are no tuna canning plants anymore but at the intersection of Cesar Chavez Parkway and Crosby Street is a little park previously known as Crosby Street Park but now known as Cesar Chavez Park.
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Before you actually get to the park, there is a nice tuna industry memorial at the north end of the park. It’s difficult to get to because it sits by itself on the left side of two roads that are very well used.
In the first picture above, you can see a white building at the center right with the words “Where Restaurants Shop” on it. That building was originally a tuna cannery.
The original artwork shown in the second and third pictures is titled “The Cannery Workers Tribute,” and was created in 2009 by Nancy Moran, Valerie Salatino, and Sheila Moran of Nature Works.
There are several plaques near the artwork describing the tuna industry, and life in that industry. Pictures of the plaques are included below, and I have transcribed the plaques to make it easier for you to read. However, I did not correct any punctuation or grammatical/syntax errors, so what you read below the picture is what the plaque says, literally.
The Advent of the Cannery Industry— In 1988, the Peerless hauled in the largest catch of tuna San Diego had ever seen. This once sleepy coastal town was riding the wave of a new industry that at its height would have become the largest in the world. The tuna industry brought many jobs to the region. Italian, Japanese, Mexican and Portuguese men with little more than the shirts on their backs could make a hard but decent living as crew members or boat owners in the fishing industry. Their wives, mothers, sisters and brothers could also make ends meet by working in San Diego’s canneries. Sardines were the first fish canned, but after tuna was taste tested at the Pomona Fair in 1902, it became popular. In 1911, Pacific Tuna Canning Co. at the foot of F Street was the first cannery to start processing tuna. By 1920, San Diego was home to ten canneries. Fishermen unloaded their albacore, skipjack, blue fin, big eye, yellow fin and yellowtail at canneries that included Premier Packing Co., Hovden Company, Arrow Packing, Steel Hume and Neptune Sea Foods. The plants were located on water-front property spanning from Laurel and Pacific highways to Crosby Street near the Coronado Bridge. The canneries did everything: process tuna, hand-solder cans, label, market and distribute canned tuna. San Diego’s tuna industry was born giving life to growing local neighborhoods such as Little Italy, Barrio Logan, Point Loma and would thrive for almost eighty years.
The Process—For tuna to go into a sandwich or a salad bowl, it often traveled up to 7,000 miles. The tuna would first be caught on a tropical fishing bank off of the coast of South America, the South Eastern Atlantic and West Coast of Africa and travel back by boat in a well. It would then be unloaded at a San Diego cannery. That process, as expressed by most involved was wet, smelly and messy. Yet the women who “worked the lines” managed to keep their uniforms and hats in pristine condition. The men who unloaded the tuna handled the racks and ovens didn’t have to adhere to such a uniform. The canneries processed tuna, hand soldered cans, labeled, marketed and distributed canned tuna. Frozen fish were delivered, thawed, washed, separate and cleaned. Fish were then placed in wire mesh baskets, loaded onto racks, rolled into tunnels and steam cooked. At the cleaning tables, workers removed heads, fins and tails. Dark and light meat was separated then the meat was loaded by hand into cans. 90 percent of a fish was used in processing. The parts of the fish that were not for human consumption went to plants to make animal feed. “As long as the fish canning industry lasted in San Diego, I could produce up to 2,000 tons of fish meal a month”, said a business man who in 1922 was one of the largest manufacturers of tuna by-products in the state.”
The People—When the bell rang, it was time to go to work. Fishing boats had no schedule. When the boats needed to unload their catches, cannery workers reported for duty. “You could hear the bells from the waterfront canneries ring, as far away as Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Little Italy and Logan Heights”, says one long-time resident of Point Loma. Her mother used to leave her and her small brothers and an aunt in the middle of the night to go work at the Westgate Cannery while her father fished off the coast. At one time or another, almost every Italian, Japanese, Mexican or Portuguese family in the area was hooked to the tuna fishing industry, says another whose mother quit high school in 1929 and, at 15, went to work at the Sun Harbor Cannery. A cannery worker in those days was usually paid by piecework, recalls a former cannery worker and fisherman. Women worked the line and did the cleaning and prepping of the tuna fish and could work as many as 12 to 14 hours in a day. In the 1920′s, women working in the canneries could earn about $10 a day, however, men were always paid more. Another cannery worker, originally from Italy, worked in the canneries at age 16 after quitting school out of necessity. She joined the Westgate Cannery in 1927 as a packer. “Sometimes there would be three or four boats at the same time and the cannery would be flooded with fish that all had to be packed. sometimes I worked from eight in the morning until ten at night,” she said.
The End of An Era—Tuna canneries from the early 1900′s to the 1980′s employed thousands of San Diegans and produced millions of cans of tuna. In 1961 the $6 million Breast O’ Chicken plant opened on San Diego Bay producing 650,000 cans of tuna per day and employing 600 workers who received minimum wage which was $1 dollar per hour. As cannery workers unionized and conditions became better, so did the pay. In the 1980′s however, San Diego’s tuna fishing began to move to other areas because of foreign competition, high expenses and other factors. The canneries also faced economic hardships due to high fuel prices. Bumble bee Seafoods was the last cannery in San Diego and shut it’s doors in 1983. Canneries have followed the fishermen and their boats to American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico to take advantage of cheaper labor overseas and fertile fishing seas. Tuna remains, however, the number one seafood in America. San Diego’s tuna fishing and cannery industries helped many families attain their American dreams. Generations later many descendants of the cannery workers went on to college and professional careers. Many have become prominent community, civic and political leaders. The Cannery Workers Tribute Park – Parque del Sol has been created in thanks and remembrance to the cannery workers.
In part three of San Diego’s tuna industry, I’ll show you the park and its amenities, including a long wall exhibiting historical photos of the tuna industry in San Diego. You won’t believe how the photos were created for outdoor exhibit in this little park.
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