Bluefin Cowboys

— They are symmetrical, with pointed noses, vacuous eyes, and rigid appendages. It is the job of men like Frank Acuna to slice

through them. The harvesting of pen-fattened bluefin tuna began in Australia in the early '90s. After entrepreneurs found that the high prices paid for such tuna outweighed the cost of building pens, operations expanded into the Atlantic and Baja California.

In a small office above Point Loma Seafoods, owner John Christianson reclines in his chair, puffing on a cigar. "Japan drives the market for fresh fish; it's literally almost a stock exchange," he said. "Their auction block determines local tuna prices." In Christianson's display case, the price of fresh bluefin fluctuates. In April, it sold for $21.95 per pound and will likely reach $32.95 per pound in the summer months.

Bluefin are seined off of the coast of Australia from December to March. According to Joe Principato, vice president of operations at Chesapeake Fish Company, the fish are then transported to farming facilities at the Coronado Islands run by Mexican tuna ranchers. Upon arrival at the site, the tuna are herded from the seiner's underwater panels into the farm's football field-sized pens, where they are fattened with sardines, anchovies, and other bait fish for three to six months. After months of gorging, the tuna are auctioned at Tsukiji, Tokyo's fish market.

"These guys aren't stupid," said Christianson, referring to Mexican tuna ranchers. "Once they see they can get paid more for a better-looking fish, they'll do whatever it takes." And Christianson means whatever it takes, from shooting predatory sea lions to spending thousands on temperature-monitoring devices that cool the water so the bluefin build up fat stores and, in turn, fetch a higher price.

Each season, Principato rents out the use of Chesapeake's dockside cleaning and processing facilities and employees to Mexican tuna ranchers for the yearly production. According to Principato, 100 percent of the bluefin that passes through Chesapeake goes to Japan. Beginning in the 1970s, international fishing laws prohibited Japan from trawling foreign waters in their own boats. Japan had to import, looking to tuna ranches.

(The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has listed the bluefin tuna as "critically endangered" on its Red List of species at risk. The number of bluefin tuna has been reduced to less than 5 percent of its original population size in just three decades.)

As a fish cutter at Point Loma Seafoods, Frank Acuna's day starts before the sun rises, where he stands over a stainless-steel table sorting through Styrofoam boxes. He begins filleting the day's fish.

Acuna has been involved in all aspects of the seasonal bluefin production at Chesapeake, from the killing and cleaning of the fish to the packaging and shipping. Last year, he and other Chesapeake employees worked from August to March to fill a quota of 900 tons of bluefin for Japan.

At 32, Acuna looks as though he could pass for a man in his mid-20s. He wears old Levi's tucked into rubber deck boots patched with duct tape. He adjusts his baseball hat.

"The bluefin are slaughtered individually by sticking a hook between the eyes that punctures the brain," Acuna said. "Attached to the hook is a long pipe that's inserted vertically into the fish. This shocks the spine and speeds up rigor mortis," he added.

A tuna's value is determined by its grade. A grade is determined by the fish's color and fat content. According to Acuna, number-two grade is more highly valued, as it has more fat content, and number-one grade is considered less desirable. There are four grades of tuna; however, most fish buyers recognize only the first two, as number three and number four grades are often either canned or frozen.

Negotiations begin on the dock. According to Principato, buyers from Japan inspect the fish, checking fat content, color, and visual appeal. After calls to Japan to determine current prices, high bids are accepted, and the tuna is submerged in crushed ice -- after being sliced up by Acuna -- and shipped by Chesapeake's fleet of delivery trucks from the company's Harbor Lane facilities to LAX, where it will go to Tokyo via air freight and be auctioned at Tsukiji, all within 48 hours.

Principato has doubts about San Diego's new tuna industry.

"Most of the tuna caught off the coast of California is not bluefin," he said. "Also, only a certain clientele is interested in bluefin, mainly the Asian market."

J.C. Sanfilippo, a broker for Chesapeake, also has his doubts. "There just isn't enough room out there [the Coronados] for them to put all of these pens," he said. Sanfilippo has been in the business five years, working as a fresh-fish buyer importing tuna and other fish from all over the world.

In the Ensenada area, there are six tuna-ranching operations either functioning or approved for operation by the Mexican government. The first and largest of these, Maricultura del Norte, on the south side of Punta Banda, operates 15 pens, and legislation to authorize the first American tuna-ranching operation is being drafted.

With funding from Chevron, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute of San Diego is seeking permits to operate an experimental fish farm and hatchery for three years at Platform Grace, a relay point along an oil pipeline owned by Santa Barbara oil company Venoco Inc., near Ventura in federal waters. The Grace Mariculture Project would include four submerged pens, encompassing 1H square miles.

According to Hubbs's program director Paula Sylvia, the project's goal is to help supply a growing demand for seafood. "The largest trade deficit in the U.S. is oil, the second is seafood imports." As part of the three-year project, the institute would raise bluefin tuna, California yellowtail, California halibut, striped bass, and red abalone.

Though SeaWorld is not affiliated with the farming taking place at the Coronado Islands, the institute knows how lucrative commercial bluefin farming is. Prior to working for Hubbs, Sylvia worked in the research and development of commercial tuna farming. "Japan will always be the main market," she said. "But our focus here is primarily on the domestic market," she added.

The Grace Mariculture Project would be used to determine the economic and environmental feasibility of tuna ranching in the U.S. Sylvia said that the fact the project would take place on an operational oil platform would not have any effects on what SeaWorld hopes to accomplish. According to Sylvia, any profits from sales would go into marine research. Hubbs is a public nonprofit charity.

But the industry that has recently been marked by funding from Standard Oil was not always so tailored to accommodate the speed and profitability of the business world.

"My father was a fisherman, so was his father," said John Zollezzi. "It's what I knew." After graduating from Point Loma High School in 1948, Zollezzi served two years in the Korean War. When he returned to Point Loma at the age of 21, he found work as a fisherman. "Everyone knew everybody, there was a camaraderie you don't see anymore," Zollezzi said.

Over 40,000 people were employed directly or indirectly by the tuna industry. Large companies like Van Camp Seafood Co., Starkist Foods, Bumble Bee Seafood, Pan Pacific, and other small canneries processed tuna here. Most fishing in those days was done off of the coasts of Mexico, Central America, and the Galapagos Islands.

Andrew Castagnola began fishing tuna as a teenager in 1928, fishing pole-and-line early in his career and later working on the tuna boats. "So much was going on around you," Castagnola said, describing work on the purse seiners. "You had all that hydraulic gear above you. I knew of several guys who got killed by the booms," he added.

"We didn't stay home that long, maybe a week or two," said Zollezzi. After the vessel was laden with tuna in some remote port, it was bound for San Diego to unload at the cannery, get paid, load provisions for the next trip, kiss their babies good-bye, and ship out again. "Around Christmas, we'd all try to be back," Zollezzi added.

After WWII, large corporations began buying up canneries in California. "It just stopped," said Zollezzi. "There was nobody to deliver fish to." Consolidation of smaller canneries left fishermen like Zollezzi profitless.

The demand of large corporations exceeded the supply of local fishermen, who were unable to provide enough tuna to fill the quotas of a conglomerate, and the industry faded. Foreign competition, rising costs, environmental concerns, and a host of other problems forced the big corporations to close remaining canneries, sell the fleets to foreign interests, and move on.

"By and large we felt the effects of it," said Anthony Ghio, owner of Ghio Seafoods and Anthony's Fish Grotto. John Zollezzi's two sons are fourth-generation fishermen. One is stationed in Ecuador, and the other, off the coast of Australia. Unlike the Japanese market, there is no premium price to be paid for this kind of fishing. Like Zollezzi's sons, Castagnola's son Vito has worked on a large seiner for the past decade, fishing yellowfin and skipjack off the coast of Mexico.

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