Tuna dilemmas you would not expect

Troubled waters

“The highest quality fish, the delicate white meat, comes only from albacore.”
  • “The highest quality fish, the delicate white meat, comes only from albacore.”
  • Image by Jim Hair

"WHEN WE SAY FISH, we mean albacore. We don’t consider anything else really fish,” explained a long-time live-bait fisherman, walking along the San Diego Commercial Marina piers at North Harbor Drive, not far from Tarantino’s Restaurant.

“The tuna industry is a child of southern California.”

“The tuna industry is a child of southern California.”

There was a lot of activity just then, as the boats were getting set to put out early in the albacore season. One woman, with two toddlers in diapers, had just seen her husband off on a five-week trip. Unlike at Navy departures, no tears were shed here. One third of a fisherman’s adult life is spent away from his family and home, but no other group of San Diegans seems quite as satisfied with the life they lead and the work they do. There is a tide-like pull which draws these men onto the ocean, where each trip out means considerable risk and hard work.

As Van Camp’s Ted Harder stated a while ago, “The tuna industry is a child of southern California.” The first fish, he said, were canned commercially at the turn of the century, and the industry has continued to grow, until today there are 20 canneries on the West Coast, four of them with docks in San Diego.

One part of that industry, albacore production, is now big business, although the men who catch the fish to put in the Little Mermaid’s cans are all independent businessmen. They use traditional fishing methods, but wind up with enormous investments in the tools of their industry. San Diego’s small-boat fishing fleet, by a very conservative estimate, represents a 60 million dollar investment and employs about 1000 men directly. Many more are employed in the various support industries—shipyards, canneries, chandlers, and suppliers.

TIM PETERSON, owner of the Karen Mary, is around 30 years old. He’s been fishing since he was a little boy, went on to school, but then; he remarks, “I just had to go back to fishing.”

Peterson bought his boat about a year and a half ago and has refitted her himself to meet the needs of a live-bait fisher. The Karen Mary is probably worth $300,000 now, but because of high loan interest rates, high insurance costs, and the increased cost of fuel—nothing comes at a reasonable price for fishermen—Peterson’s return on his investment will probably not reach $20,000 this season. However, once a boat is paid for, the owner can earn a good living. Along with his own family, Peterson’s boat has to support nine crewmen during the albacore season, each of whom takes home a share of what the canners pay for the catch.

Peterson was preparing to take the Karen Mary out for a 60-day trip. His willingness to take time out to talk is typical of the open, good-humored people who catch the albacore. But take out a reporter’s notebook and start asking questions, and these same people become uncomfortable. Once assured that their names will not be used, especially in connection with their opinions about certain industry problems, they will gladly spend any number of hours describing their work.

Their reticence to be quoted is probably well founded, for the albacore industry does have its problems: with all levels of governments, with international associations, and with the canners they sell to, as well as with related fishing industries. These problems are complicated enough to require a unified voice.

That voice, the Western Fishboat Owners Association, was formed about eight years ago by the albacoremen. The association now has some 550 members from Ketchikan to San Diego. It negotiates with the canners for each season’s per ton price, and it lobbies for the industry at different levels of government. But even WFOA spokesmen are uneasy about talking with the press, because of the delicacy of the continuing hassles facing albacore production.

THE FIRST PROBLEM the industry has is explaining to the outsider that albacore and tuna are not interchangeable words. Tuna can mean any of several large food fishes, such as skip-jack or yellow fin, as well as “the highest quality fish, the delicate white meat, which comes only from albacore.” Tuna is caught by the purse seiners, those multi-million dollar boats which line up along the Embarcadero. “Except for a few lucky accidents,” explained a fishery researcher, “they don’t catch any albacore.” The seiners’ highly mechanized method of fishing is extraordinarily efficient at catching “tuna” which schools in a manner different from albacore.

Albacore is caught by an old-fashioned hook-and-line method. One man who has worked albacore for nearly 40 years noted, “The albacore fishery is the one industry that hasn’t faced depletion, because the technology to destroy it hasn’t been found.”

During the season, which usually runs from June to October, the small boats are out for 30 to 60 days at a time. The men will sometimes work around the clock, catching 150 fish on a reasonably good day. The boats come back to off-load their catch at a cannery, make any necessary repairs, and re-outfit, all of which takes four or five days. And then they go out again.

Depending on the time of the season, the fish are either caught with weighted lures (jigs) or with live anchovy bait (chums) from bamboo fishing poles. With either method, men tend the Sines and haul in the catch. There is no mechanical apparatus to gather the fish together or to dump them in the boats.

Most of the boats are owner-operated and take from one to nine men as crew. The quarters are crowded, and the existence on board is spartan.

One 24-year-old crewman said, “We’re like the last of the gold-miners. We work damn hard out there, but we’re taking a chance. Each trip is either a winner or a bust.”

Crews work for shares, a percentage of the price the cannery pays for the catch. And although the canneries have always been willing to buy all that has been caught, this is a bad year for the albacore crewmen. One owner, who used to take along a crew of four or five, is now going out with only his son. Another boat, which had a crew of seven last year, is taking only three this season. As one boat-owner explains, “Inflation’s finally caught up with us.” The larger the crew, the lower the profits and the higher the cost of supplies.

Because the crewmen work for shares, they are as concerned with bringing in a boom catch as the owners. But finding the fish is a problem.

Albacore roam the Pacific, concentrating especially in sea mount areas, where cold, mineral-rich, deep-water streams are forced upwards by the undersea formations. The up-welling brings nutrients to the upper waters, and this nourishes the small animal forms, which eventually feed the albacore.

In the old days, each boat went out in search of albacore independently, concentrating on previously successful areas, but willing to explore new grounds if fish failed to return to the traditional areas. Fuel costs, which have recently tripled, make exploration much too expensive these days.

Members of the industry have had to start cooperating to find the fish. The American Fisherman’s Research Foundation, headquartered in San Diego, was formed jointly by members of WFOA and the canneries to help locate the albacore.

It is financed by a per ton assessment of domestic albacore processed by the canneries.

AFRA leases several research vessels, which comb the Pacific from the Aleutians to San Guadelupe Island and westward. Marine biologists take water samples, tag fish, and report catches, all of which are plotted in the AFRA office. When albacore is found in season, the fleet is called in. Last year the researchers not only helped locate fish, but just as importantly, they were able to report which traditional grounds were without fish.

During the winter months, some albacoremen go out after salmon, shrimp, or other fish; but many others remain in port. All of them need a place to tie up in San Diego. And providing moorings for all the commercial fishers has developed into a major problem, fishermen prefer being able to tie up at a dock or pier with land access, rather than dropping anchor in the middle of the bay, which means rowing ashore in a skiff. When the boats aren’t out, there is still a lot of work to be done, and working from a dock rather than an anchorage means electricity, water, and easier access.

Berths have become increasingly hard to find, though, because commercial fishermen are now competing for use of California harbors with sportfishers, pleasure boaters, and even water skiers. The competition has gotten bitter, especially in southern California where the milder weather stimulates recreational uses.

As this competition has increased locally in San Diego Bay, the availability of commercial berths has diminished. Two piers were taken from the commercial fleet about 1968 when the Port District built the sportfishing basin near Shelter Island. Several other long-time marinas, such as the Bali Hai and Sun Harbor, now will lease only to pleasure craft. In addition, the Starkist dock, which is said to provide winter berths for nearly 40 boats, may lose its lease soon. All of these marinas have leases from the Port District.which usually reviews the sub-leases and policies of all its tenants.

The local dockside talk maintains that some members of the fleet have had to move from San Diego because they were simply unable to find a place to tie up. The Port District’s Property Manager, Don Hillman, discounts such talk. “No one has ever come into my office saying they are moving from San Diego because of that reason,” he claims.

Hillman does indicate that once the “G” Street Mole is built, there will be berths for 40 additional small commercial boats, but the mole isn’t even under construction yet. The staff, he says, is also trying to find another location for the Starkist operation.

Bill Dick, the Community Relations Specialist for the port, believes the fishermen’s charges are unfounded. “The Board of the Port Commission and the Port Director have realized that the fishing industry as a whole is the single most important segment of the bay’s industries. It has been a matter of concern to them that the small-boat fishermen could be overlooked because of the size of the seiners. They have made heroic attempts to see that this doesn’t happen.”

The real problem, according to Dick is that there is only limited bay acreage and there are many competing pressures for its use. The Port District believes everything, from restaurants to heavy industry, such as National Steel and Shipbuilding, must be served. Each of these various interests is demanding a larger share of the limited bay. “But even the smallest fisherman,” Dick emphatically states, “is important to us.”

The commercial fishermen acknowledge the pressures the Port District is facing. But they view the legitimate uses for San Diego Bay differently. Valuable deep water, they claim, should not be taken by restaurants, and land access to deep water shouldn’t be covered with tourist-oriented facilities.

As one albacore specialist argued, “Deep navigable waters are a Federal issue. The people of Kansas have as much right to this bay as the people of San Diego. If you make things difficult for the commercial fisherman, you are going to make things difficult for the consumer.”

In addition to the competition for piers, local fishermen also complain about the rundown state of the marina. “Of all the commercial facilities up and down the coast,” says one angry owner-, “San Diego is the worst place for the fishermen.”

They complain of unclean piers, rotten decking, a lack of rest rooms, and they insist that the Port District is trying to drive them out in order to accommodate the tourist and sportfishing industries.

The Port denies all of that, but contrary to the impeccably ordered state of other district lands, the marina does appear rundown. The lease requires the operator to “maintain and repair the leased properties . . . and to keep the premises in a clean and sanitary condition and provide proper containers (for the garbage).”

That condition of the lease is not now being met. Some decking boards have rotted away, leaving dangerous holes on the piers. Piles for tying up the boats are missing. And there is only one trash container for the 300 boats moored at the marina.

Hillman oversees 600 real estate agreements for the Port District. He says he has heard the fishermen’s complaints before, but that when he has sent experts out to check up on them, they found the complaints invalid.

COMPET1TION FOR PIERS is frustrating, but competition for albacore can be frightening, and that is the new wrinkle in this old industry.

The Japanese long-boat fishing fleet is out in the Pacific, looking for albacore. But they are employing a new method for catching the fish. When the domestic fishing fleet catches sexually immature fish, which form schools on the upper layers of the water, the albacore cannot be depleted. There is some internal mechanism protecting each school, for when a portion of the school has been caught, the rest of the fish leave the area. By contrast, the Japanese boats fish deep, where the older, reproducing fish feed. These fish have always been shunned by our local albacoremen, who claim the meat gets grainy as the fish gets older. Some researchers now are beginning to express concern that the Japanese technique may eradicate the breeding populations.

“It doesn’t take very much to tip the ecological balance. Anything sudden, like intensive fishing of a certain age group, can throw the entire population into decline,” commented one researcher. “And when that happens, it may take years to get the fishery going again.”

The researchers worry about, and constantly study, the health of the albacore. At the same time, every member of the industry is proud of its environmental sanity.

Ted Harder, from Van Camp’s canning operation, repeat what every boat-owner, researcher, and crewman eventually says. “There is absolutely no waste with this process. Every scrap of each fish is used.” What isn’t canned for human consumption is fed to pets or used to produce crude oil, vitamins, and even fertilizer.

AS THE INDIVIDUAL and highly individualistic boats were preparing to leave the San Diego Commercial Marina in search of albacore, there was still another threat to the industry looming on the horizon, a few years away. Not the price of fuel, nor new technology, nor over-fishing is as threatening.

Those at work at the marina ranged in age from middle 20s to 60-year-old veterans. “Each year the average age of the fleet gets a little older, and there are no new boats being built now,” said one man from a 40-year perspective. “And the average age of the men gets a little older too.” There were no young men in their teens and early 20s learning to spot a distant school of albacore by the “rippling of the waters” on an otherwise smooth sea. The next generation willing to spend one third of its adult life at sea hadn’t begun its apprenticeship.

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