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KPBS Midday Edition

Tuna Was A Way of Life In San Diego

Line and pole fishing in 1917.
San Diego History Center
Line and pole fishing in 1917.
Celebrating the San Diego Tuna Industry
Guests: Julius Zolezzi, retired tuna boat owner Brian Holman, CEO, American Tuna Boat Association Matthew Schiff, exhibit curator, San Diego History Center

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. For San Diegans who wonder why there's a tuna harbor north of sea port village or why there's a tuna men's memorial on shelter island, are a new exhibit at the San Diego history center should be very enlightening. The exhibit in Balboa Park celebrates the days when San Diego was home to the largest tuna fishing fleet in the world. Along with exploring the past, the exhibit also talks about the present status of the tuna industry in San Diego. I'd like to introduce my guests, Matt Schiff is with the San Diego history center, are the curator of the exhibit. Welcome to the show. FORD ROTH: Hi, Maureen, thanks. CAVANAUGH: Julius Zolezzi is a retired boat owner. Welcome. ZOLEZZI: Good morning. CAVANAUGH: And Brian Holman is with the lobbying group, the American tuna association. Welcome to the show. HOLMAN: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: Now, Matt, San Diego now is all about biotech, we're all about green energy and computer innovation. Are we forgetting about the days when the tuna industry was one of San Diego's largest? FORD ROTH: I think to some extent we have forgotten that, Maureen. But it was the biotech of its day. It was San Diego's No.†1 industry, probably second to the Navy. And so there was a huge tax base that employed a lot of people. CAVANAUGH: Give us some, if you can, some idea about how big it was. How many people were involved? Was tuna fishing big with imiant communities in San Diego? Did it bring people to San Diego? FORD ROTH: It did. It was estimated in 1890 that in Point Loma, are the port geese, about 90% of the people were involved in tuna. When the cannery closed, 12,000 jobs were lost there. And we had canneries from tenth street to 28th street. And there was people fishing, people building boats, people putting technologies on these boats. It was a huge industry. CAVANAUGH: When did it get started? FORD ROTH: In the late 18 '70s, the Japanese were some of the first to fish for tuna in San Diego. But it was just sold as a local food source, and it was not a nationwide food stuff like we have today. CAVANAUGH: Now, back in the day, when would you say the heyday of the tuna fishing industry was in San Diego? FORD ROTH: Boy, I would say probably from the 1930s to the '60s was the heyday. CAVANAUGH: So in that heyday of tuna industry in San Diego, what would the harbor look like? What would San Diego bay look like? What would we see in the bay that we don't see now? FORD ROTH: Well, certainly you wouldn't see Lindbergh field as big. There were canneries starting from -- well, there was one in Point Loma, then they started right where solar turbines is now, and went all the way to 28th street. Campbell shipyards was down there. Tuna harbor was full of tuna boats. There were tuna boats as far as the eye could see for a while. CAVANAUGH: Julius, I know that you're too young to remember that real heyday of the tuna industry. But what was it like when you got started? What was the tuna industry like in San Diego? ZOLEZZI: Well, when I got started I was 9 years old. That was the first time I went fishing. But I can remember, if you know where the three fingers are by the embarcadero, there used to be a ship yard there. And my father built his first boat there in 1937. But there was about 150 boats and bait boats here in San Diego at one time. CAVANAUGH: Wow. ZOLEZZI: And then of course like Matt said, about the canneries. But the tuna business brought, like Matt said, they were like No.†2 in Forbes magazine at one time. CAVANAUGH: Just because there were so many canneries. How does this exhibit take us back to the heyday of the tuna fishing industry? FORD ROTH: Well, we focused on the heyday, the '20s to the 60, and the exhibit looks at primarily the 52em who were involved, and where they came from. It was point loam Alittle Italy, and Barrio Logan area. These communities were so entwined with the industry that there were literally little fishing towns in San Diego. CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Do visitors get to handle any of the equipment? FORD ROTH: We do. We have a number of hands-on activities for people. A pole fishing exercise. Kids are welcome to can as many cans of tuna as they can within a minute. And our docents there help kids learn how to mend net, which was a huge part of the bait fishing industry. CAVANAUGH: Julius, the San Diego history center says your family is the embodiment of the tuna fishing industry in San Diego. Let's start with your family. When and why did they move to San Diego? ZOLEZZI: Well, my grandfather, the family was -- originated in Genoa, Italy. When Mussolini gave the Genoveses a chance to leave Italy, they got on the first boat. And they sailed to America. And their first port of entry was Rio degen arrow, then they got back on the boat, and took the great circle route, and landed in San Francisco in 1903 and stayed there for just a little while. Just before the earthquake though, they came to San Diego. And one of the main reasons they came to San Diego is that some of the Genoveses, I think my great grandfather was here, and on the west coast of California, San Diego was probably the most protected port you could ever find. And that's the reason they came here. But also there was a lot of fish here. So they settled here, and then eventually more Italians just came, started immigrating into San Diego. And the Portuguese were here too. CAVANAUGH: What type of fishing did you do? What type of equipment did you use? ZOLEZZI: Well, in the 30, during the depression, my grandfather was a rock cod fisherman. And he had a nickname, and my dad had one, rock cod Johnny. And they made a very good living during the depression because they'd go outside Point Loma and catch about a ton of rock cod, half a ton, 2†tons, and they'd come in the embarcadero is cell it for about a cent.5 a pound because nobody could afford meat during the depression. And people lined up to buy the fish. And rock cod was really a good fish to eat. And so that's how they -- actually they did quite well. CAVANAUGH: Now, did you want to become a tuna fisherman like your dad? ZOLEZZI: Well, I went to St. Augustin high school, and I really did want to be a fisherman. I used to go fishing between school terms. And I really like fishing. It's really a challenge to catch the fish. And of course, you know, I group up with a lot of older guy, quite fast. But I really liked fishing. I thought it was a healthy life. And it's a lot of hard work. But the return was good. You made good money fishing. CAVANAUGH: Let me bring Brian Holman into the conversation, you're with the lobbying group, American tuna association You've been following the ups and downs of the tuna industry? San Diego and across the United States. In the 1950s, in Julius started tuna fishing, which companies were located here in San Diego? HOLMAN: Well, at that time I'm not sure exactly which ones. Really I think in a way that heyday of the industry might have been through the '70s. When the -- it was the U.S. industry that innovated the%ing style of catching tuna. CAVANAUGH: And what is that? HOLMAN: That is a style of fishing where the tuna is encircled with a large net, and it's perched at the bottom, and then hauled up to the boat and railed on board. Before that, the method of fishing was by bait boat. What they called bait boat. And that's I think what Julius probably started doing, when they get a school of fish, get it in a feeding frenzy, and you see the pictures of the people with the pole, barbless hooks hauling these large tunas onto the boat. CAVANAUGH: Now, that persane method eventually got the tuna industry in the United States into some trouble, right? Can you tell us about that? Or who should I go to? Brian? ZOLEZZI: Well, if you're referring to the tuna dolphin -- CAVANAUGH: Yes, I am. ZOLEZZI: Controversy, yes, that was an issue that the fleet had to deal with because one of the methods of encircling -- finding tuna is that they associate in the eastern Pacific ocean with dolphin schools. And so one of the method system to circle both the tuna and the dolphins and then try to find a way to release the dolphins. And there was a period when there were dolphins being -- more dolphins being killed than people were comfortable with. CAVANAUGH: Right, yes. HOLMAN: And due to a various series of political events and laws and regulations and an international program, that problem has largely been solved to the point now where while U.S. fishermen don't fish that way anymore, foreign fishermen do. The other methods of catching tuna are to like persane are to find freely associated schools, or else it's associated with objects floating. CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you about the exhibit, Matt, because it wasn't just the type of netting used to capture the tuna. It was -- is foreign competition actually the thing that sort of reduced the industry here in San Diego? FORD ROTH: Brian might be able to speak to this better. But I know that the environmental regulations put a huge economic impediment to the American tuna boats. I think it was in 1977 or 78, the San Diego City Council lobbied the federal government for help, financial help, innoff setting some of these costs so to say it ruined it might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly hampered it. CAVANAUGH: There is some part of the tuna industry that's still alive though in San Diego, isn't it? HOLMAN: Well, there is. There's still a large U.S. tuna fleet, but they don't fish in the eastern Pacific. Of they fish in the western Pacific ocean, and the waters south of Hawaii, and out of Samoa and so forth. So that's where the boats fish, and there still is in San Diego a community of boat owners, captains, managers, and -- that are involved in the tuna industry. So it hasn't completely gone away, although the boats aren't homeported here, and the canneries have gone. So it's very different. But it has not totally disappeared in the sense of -- there's large community was people here, still very involved in tuna. CAVANAUGH: And I guess the sustainable food movement has also contributeds to that. Would that be correct? HOLMAN: Yeah. One of the issues in fisheries is that they need to be fished on a sustainable basis, and the American tuna industry does not dispute that whatsoever. In fact we're among the leaders in trying to promote that. And that's an issue that's being handled internationally, because these tunas are very migratory, a lot of countries involved, and it's a process. But I think it's working pretty well. CAVANAUGH: Julius, let me let you have the final word on this. Why do you think it's important that San Diego remembers its fishing history? ZOLEZZI: Well, all the people are still here that worked in the canneries, and crew members. And it's really something to run into some of these people. And it's a shame that this business left San Diego. It's not because we wanted to. It is because of the environmental regulations that kind of really made us go to the west. And we were very fortunate when we went to the west, we found more fish over there than there was here on the east side. But San Diego is really a great place to live, and it was a great port because it was close to Mexico, and we fished -- we did a lot of fishing off of Mexico for years and years. And pole fishing. And then of course we had to change from pole fishing to persaning. So the reason we went to persaning, because of the volume, because there was an influx of a lot of fish coming into the United States. And with pole fishing, you have to get the fish to bite. And you'd see these schools, and you'd chum on them, and they wouldn't bite. So you couldn't catch them. With a persaner, you just wrap it around with a net and you pick it up. CAVANAUGH: And the exhibit showing the history of this tuna fishing in San Diego explains -- really explains so much about San Diego neighborhoods, San Diego landmark, it's the kind of thing that people even if they got here years and years after this industry thrived, they should learn about it if they want to know about the city. The exhibit, Tuna: Celebrating San Diego's Famous Fishing Industry, is in Balboa Park through December†31st, and the San Diego history makers gala on Saturday, June†9th at the town and country will honor the tuna industry. Thank you for coming in and speaking with us. ZOLEZZI: Thank you FORD ROTH: Thank you Maureen, HOLMAN: Thank you for having us.

Tuna Celebration

Tuna! Celebrating San Diego's Famous Fishing Industry

An interactive exhibit at the San Diego History Center, Balboa Park

Now until December 31

From the 1920s to the late 60s, the tuna industry flourished in San Diego, becoming a major employer, second only to the U.S. Navy.

To honor the industry and those who created and sustained it, The San Diego History Center presents TUNA! Celebrating San Diego's Famous Fishing Industry. The interactive exhibit, which tells the story of the rise and decline of tuna fishing, is on view at the History Center in Balboa Park until December 31.


The exhibit showcases the Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and Hispanic families which formed enclaves around San Diego Bay earning a living from this vital food source and building many of the waterfront communities such as Point Loma, Little Italy, and Barrio Logan.

After World War II, major corporations began to buy up the local canneries. San Diego's independent tuna boat owners found themselves having to make deals to work for the canneries to make a living.

Foreign competition from cheaper Japanese frozen tuna further eroded San Diego's share of the tuna market. Environmental concerns, particularly about dolphins captured in the big nets now in use, doomed the industry as it was.

It survives in San Diego today through distributors like Bumble Bee and the new company American Tuna, which practices pole-and-line fishing, deemed sustainable by environmental groups.

San Diego's Tuna History