|Once Upon a Tuna Town|
Once Upon a Tuna Town
Today, San Diego's Embarcadero, just west of downtown, is known primarily as a tourist destination-a place to catch departing cruise ships, check out a maritime museum or find a waterfront dining spot for fish and chips. But until fairly recent times, even up into the 1970s, the harbor was a bustling, working marina, where fishing families used to gather at the whistle of a tuna clipper coming into port, which for many, meant the return of a loved one from the sea.
At the dock, the boats would moor and unload their catch for nearby canneries, which employed many of the fishermen's relatives and countless others of all nationalities. Beginning in the '30s and continuing for nearly 40 years, San Diego was known as the tuna capital of the world; the fishing trade ranked close in revenue behind the Navy and aircraft industry, feeding tens of million dollars each year into the city's economy.
But the story of fishing in San Diego started in the early 1900s, when the bounty of the local waters attracted fishermen from far and wide, including men of Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese and Italian decent. They began using small boats to fish for local seafood, including halibut, mackerel, sardines and tuna.
A New Industry Takes Off In San Diego
It was the sardine industry that begat the tuna boom in a way, when a California sardine canner, dealing with fluctuating populations of that fish, experimented with methods of cooking and canning albacore, which was once thought of as an unpalatable nuisance fish. Consumers took quickly to this white meat-like tuna-and in 1911, San Diego's first large tuna cannery opened. It was soon followed by a handful more, creating a sort of cannery row that included such household names as Bumble Bee and StarKist and stretched from Little Italy to Barrio Logan.
By World War I, production of canned tuna skyrocketed to hundreds of thousands of cases per year, due to its convenience as a protein-rich, portable food that, according to the National Fisheries Institute, still remains the second most popular seafood eaten in the United States.
Increasing demand for tuna brought more and more fishermen from farther afield to San Diego shores, including many from the fishing communities on the East Coast who sought greater fortune here. Among them were a teenage Richard Rose and his family, originally from the Portuguese island of Pico in the Azores, by way of Massachusetts. Sixty years ago, his family, along with many others of Portuguese heritage, settled in Point Loma, which came to be nicknamed "Tunaville." His father was a commercial fisherman and Richard had fished on their family's boats since the age of 12, dragging the waters of the North Atlantic for red snapper and haddock, working summers while saving up to buy a car. At 18, when he graduated from Point Loma High School, he and many of his peers sought a coveted spot within the tuna fleet, where the younger or less-experienced men would be started out at a quarter-share, a term bound to be familiar to viewers of the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch.
On his first boat, the Portuguese-skippered Anna M., Richard and the rest of the crew would sail for anywhere from six weeks to three or four months straight. They chased the migratory schools of tuna from Mexico to the Galapagos Islands until they had caught enough fish, including albacore, yellowfin and skipjack, to fill the boat's hold and complete their orders from the canneries. Occasionally, they'd return to homeport without fulfilling their quota and would have to go without pay on the next fishing trip to make up what they owed the boat.
Thrilling But Dangerous Work
For many of the early decades, all tuna fishing was done on bait boats, using a technique that Japanese fisherman are credited with introducing to the industry. After "chumming" the water with small baitfish to attract the tuna, a fisherman would stand on a somewhat precarious rack attached to the side of the boat, outside the rails, holding a long and flexible but very strong bamboo pole attached to a fishing line and lure. After a fish bit the hook, he'd use his arm and upper body strength to flip the tuna over his shoulder and onto the deck.
Depending on the size of the tuna, which could exceed 150 pounds each, up to three men would be linked to the same line, each heaving his own pole. Richard describes the work as being incredibly physical yet thrilling, though fraught with danger. The tuna were large enough to pull a man off the deck and into the freezing water below.
Sometimes just fishing for the bait they needed was hazardous. He recalls netting bait in the Galapagos by being sent down deep into the ocean in now-antique diving gear, relying on two men on deck to pump air into his metal helmet.
By the 1940s, many fishing boats had been commandeered by the Navy for use during World War II and in the postwar period, those remaining in the fleet struggled with obtaining enough bait to catch a profitable haul of tuna. And though the hook-and-line method gave way to net fishing, it was slow and cumbersome, given the number of men needed to haul the nets onto the boat.
A Constantly Changing Industry
Then, in the late '50s, came a turning point in tuna fishing: a technological advance that would revolutionize the industry. The innovation of a pulley system allowed boats to more easily pull in huge fishing nets, often thousands of feet long and hundreds of feet deep, which could catch thousands of pounds of tuna in one setting. These purse seine nets function like a giant lasso, looped around a large school of fish by a small skiff. A cable, threaded through a set of rings at the base of the open-ended net, is pulled to close the bottom of net like an upside-down drawstring purse. Soon, for efficiency and increased profitability, most bait boats converted to the purse seine fishing method.
To find the schools of fish, purse seiners would employ the talents of mast men, keen-eyed men whose job was to spend long days perched high up the mast in a crow's nest while using binoculars to visually scout for tuna. On a boat called the Claire P., the task fell to a young man named Pietro Balistreri, who emigrated to San Diego in 1955 from Aspra, a seaside village on the island of Sicily and whose first family home was in the San Diego neighborhood now known as Little Italy, where many of Pietro's fishing brethren from Italy initially settled. An anchovy fisherman in Italy, he'd honed his fish-spotting skills in the hills above his hometown, from upon which he'd study the ocean to read the ripples and color changes in the water that would indicate schooling fish.
Pietro's boat, and others like it, followed the tuna's migratory path, fishing successfully off the coast of Mexico, Central and South America, though they were often away from their families for up to half a year at a time. The tuna fleet grew, and by the 1970s there were well over 100 boats running out of San Diego and tens of thousands of people employed within some part of the industry. The Journal of San Diego History estimated that every dollar generated by the tuna business translated into $8 generated somewhere else in the local economy.
But the purse seine nets, while efficient for catching tuna, would also sometimes catch dolphin, which swam with the schooling yellowfin tuna. In fact, mast men would often look for dolphin along the surface of the ocean, knowing that there would likely be tuna swimming underneath the mammals. To mitigate this bycatch, fishermen developed a "backdown" technique that would dip the end of a net and allow the dolphin to swim clear, although they would often free them by hand as well. A San Diego tuna boat captain also invented a panel for nets that helps keep dolphin from becoming entangled.
But concerns mounted, and in 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, putting the commercial fishing industry and environmental groups at odds with one another. Through the years, regulations mounted. The owners of some U.S. ships chose to transfer their registrations to other countries that did not have the same restrictions.
The local community felt the effects: Canneries began to lay off workers or move overseas for cheaper labor and in 1982 Bumble Bee Seafoods and Van Kamp Seafood closed the last two local plants. Today, approximately seven U.S. tuna boats remain in the world, mostly fishing in the waters of the Western Tropical Pacific Ocean, near the islands of Guam and Samoa
Strong Local Family Traditions Live On
Little Italy began to decline in the '70s due to the loss of industry, and so Pietro Balistreri and his family, along with many other Italians, moved to Mission Hills to establish a new enclave. Pietro, now 82, and his wife, Maria, still live in the same cottage, where they still eat the seafood-abundant, seasonal diet of their coastal Sicilian heritage, augmented by the vegetables that they grow in their backyard. He has lost the use of some of his fingers but is still active, participating in bocce ball tournaments, and remains engaged in what's left of the local fishing community.
As often as he's needed, Pietro makes his way down to the docks near Point Loma Seafoods to help local swordfish boats to hand-repair their nets, a lost Old World craft that's not as familiar to younger generations.
Now 78 and still tall and strong, pole fisherman Richard Rose left the large tuna boats when the boats switched to purse seines, though he continued to fish with his family on smaller albacore boats. He eventually called it quits after a particularly harrowing trip when seven fellow fishing boats sank during a storm, and now runs a successful oil filter business in National City.
In addition to tuna fishing, the two men have something else in common: a grandson.
Pete Balistreri, named after his paternal grandfather, was born in San Diego, graduated from Point Loma High and San Diego State University and counts many of his immediate and extended family, including his father, Edward, as members of the local tuna industry, both then and now. Though he was never a fisherman himself, Pete's food sensibility was absolutely shaped and informed by growing up in his grandparents' kitchens, where he would eat his Nonna's homemade pasta and sauce and enjoy the perks of being in a fishing family: free seafood. Local fish, lobster and crab were often on their dinner plates, in simple and fresh preparations.
Pete's love of food, particularly handcrafted food, took him to culinary school and into the kitchens of some of the West Coast's best farm-to-table restaurants. All roads led him back to his hometown of Point Loma, where in 2008 he opened his first restaurant, Tender Greens. With family members as investors, Pete modeled the menu after his own food heritage, using produce from local farms, making house cured salumi and buying local seafood from Pacific Beach's Pacific Shellfish.
And though tuna's golden years have long since passed, the history of the industry continues on in the homes and lives of Portuguese fishing families that remain in Point Loma and the Balistreri's Mission Hills neighbors, who are among the original Italian fishermen. Local businesses, such as seafood wholesaler Chesapeake Fish Co. and seafood market Sportsman's Seafood, were both founded in tuna's glory days and still flourish.
From ship to shore, tuna brought wealth, culture and vibrancy to San Diego, and newer companies such as locally based American Tuna, a sustainable commercial tuna fishery, are working on resurrecting that legacy, can by can.
Candice Woo is an award-winning food and drink writer and regular contributor to Edible San Diego. She currently authors a weekly food news and restaurant review column in San Diego CityBeat. Candice also she serves as Education Co-Chair on the board of Slow Food Urban San Diego, where she helps to create food enrichment classes and events, advises student Slow Food chapters and works towards bringing better food into local schools. Candice enjoys writing about the stories behind our plates, and is particularly passionate about artisan food and craft beer. To talk food, write to Candice at firstname.lastname@example.org.