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Balboa Park Exhibit Tells Story of San Diego Fishing

Posted on 16 May 2012 by mburgess


The legacy of San Diego’s tuna fleet is a proud one. From humble beginnings among displaced immigrants using ancient equipment to a modern, far-ranging and all too effective harvester of the seas, San Diego led the way in advancement of one of man’s oldest ways of finding food.

The epitaph of one San Diego fisherman perhaps sums up their collective contribution: “For every day of 33 years at sea, he risked his life in order to feed his family ? and millions of others around the world.”

“Tuna! Celebrating San Diego’s Famous Fishing Industry” is an exhibit that opened at the San Diego History Center (SDHC) April 21. It gives a view of San Diego’s fishermen and their associates: the boats and the people who changed the way the world fishes today, but its presenters had to overcome a severe obstacle before this exhibit could even be mounted: artifacts are surprisingly hard to find, just like schools of fish that vanish.

The tuna fleet disappeared more than 20 years ago and, although it was once San Diego’s largest industry, many of its most notable characters and ephemera are gone too. There isn’t much to draw on anymore, but the SDHC does a credible job with what it has. The almost life-size photographs convey plenty of atmosphere and there are hands-on opportunities to appreciate the kinds of dexterity and perseverance demanded by the industry.

Although I recall with some bitterness my personal involvement in San Diego tuna fishing, as a boy of 9, pressed into service on my father’s boat, I feel moved to endorse this exhibit as a fine tribute; one long overdue to those who created a world ? and a social system ? out of nothing. San Diego’s earliest fishermen are perhaps best understood as underdogs who persevered in the face of cruel nature and indifferent people.

In fact, they were outcasts in their earliest days here. Chinese, Mexicans, Japanese, Portuguese and Italians were separated along ethnic and racial lines from the dominant society and literally lived on the edges of the city, out of sight and consideration of residents a little more than a century ago.

Nevertheless, many technological advances, that have affected the whole world, were spurred on by unlikely combinations of people working under absurdly difficult conditions for many years in San Diego waters.

Those people had to coexist with a city whose population was mostly unfamiliar with the high-quality exotic seafood, which in the early days only found demand in foreign markets or in exclusive immigrant communities.

As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, few resources existed here to build boats and the other equipment needed for fishing. These items were often fabricated by the fishermen themselves or by other new arrivals to American shores.

As it turned out, they had everything they needed to become the foremost industry of their kind in the world.

More than 100 years ago, San Diego’s Italian and Chinese fishermen sailed boats their ancestors would have been familiar with a thousand years earlier. The Chinese modified their junks for fishing while the Italian feluccas were derived from Arab vessels that could be handled easily by one man even in rough weather.

In the span of a single lifetime, these primitive traditional boats gave way to modern, locally designed and custom-crafted boats that could range over the world’s oceans for months at a time. They caught and preserved fish in a quantity undreamed of by earlier generations, all in relative safety and that could yield profits previously unimaginable to the men who founded San Diego’s early fleets.

The fishermen were notably free from constant, overt antagonism caused by racial or ethnic differences and this allowed them to share innovations of every kind. In this, they were supported by the canneries that rose up along the waterfront. The cannery operators were savvy enough, from the beginning, to find markets throughout the US and the rest of the world for tuna and other fish.

Support also came from the Japanese and Italian governments, which opened their home markets to American imports during wartime food shortages.

Gasoline engines, electricity, navigation aids, refrigeration, and larger hulls roughly marked the separation from the primitive, traditional boats and the first “American” styles. Later, steel hulls replaced wooden ones and stern-mounted live bait tanks surrounded by outrigged-rails (on which fishermen wielded bamboo poles with baited hooks) gave way to purse-seiners (boats equipped with a vast net and crane operation which worked like a woman’s draw-string bag to scoop up tons of fish in a single operation or “set” that might take only a few hours to accomplish).

Nylon nets replaced cotton. And more agile speed boats served as mounts for fishermen who herded tuna toward them like sea-going cowboys. Light seaplanes extended the range beyond that of traditional lookouts in crow’s nests. The airmen could find schools of fish a hundred or more miles from a tuna boat.

The lessons learned with each new boat were quickly applied to new ones built at shipyards in San Diego, San Pedro and Tacoma. As time passed, purse seiners grew ever larger; the boats of 1960, which filled their holds with perhaps 200 tons of tuna, were dwarfed by boats of the mid-70s that could hold a load five times as heavy. Demand for tuna kept the fleet busy and development of boats and their systems seemed limitless.

Development was fast ? but it was costly in terms of men’s lives as well as money. Equipment worked or else it didn’t. And, when it failed, it could kill or maim those dependent on it.

Putting a dozen men into a small boat at murderously close range demanded self control, acceptance of others’ quirks and the kind of leadership from a captain that would sometimes make Captain Bligh look like Mother Theresa. And then there was the sea, dangerous and cruel, no matter how good the technology or how talented were the men on the boat.

Every generation had stories about how men were wasted out there: men bitten to death by sharks washed across the deck in heavy weather; men crushed by falling equipment or lost overboard or snipped in two by a parting steel cable, or thrown from crow’s nests; men stricken with sudden, unexplained illness with no hope of getting to help ashore in time. Some simply vanished, along with their boats, in sudden explosions of uncertain origin. Nothing was easy at sea for San Diego’s fishermen, yet they persevered, year after year, with a remarkably good outlook supported by the kinds of family structures they maintained.

One photo on the wall of this historical exhibit evokes a particularly poignant glimpse of the industry. It shows a tuna clipper outbound with a pair of wives waving goodbye. The wives, mothers, daughters and sisters formed a broad community that was a matriarchy of sorts that raised children, maintained homes and every aspect of life ashore and provided continuity for all professional, social and cultural aspects of the fishing community. Beyond that, they helped maintain the boats in the early days of the industry by making and repairing the nets, hulls, and everything else.

My own grandmother ? the daughter and wife of a fisherman ? once scandalized her community by wearing her husband’s pants while making repairs to the wire rigging on his storm-damaged boat. When upbraided for cross-dressing, she looked her accusers in the eye and told them she had five children to feed and the sooner the boat was repaired, the sooner life could go on as before but, if anyone wanted to shinny up the mast and take the halyard with them, they were more than welcome.

Women worked in the canneries, packing fish their men had caught, and this added a very powerful incentive to the fishermen to produce more on every trip. The women in the canneries were the other half of San Diego’s tuna fishing industry, working endless hours hand-packing the cans that fed the world San Diego’s catch year after year. They formed a significant addition to labor organization in San Diego in the years prior to World War II, winning conditions from their employers on safety and compensation issues. It’s good to see this historical exhibit gives those women the respect they deserve.

Another way women in fishing communities aided the industry was simply by cooking the fish. A century ago, San Diego’s population came mostly from states that did not have a tradition of seafood, and the knowledge of how to cook and enjoy all kinds of fish and other delicacies were spread through the city by women familiar with the cuisine.

Katherine Ghio, a fisherman’s widow who turned to cooking fish in a small waterfront restaurant just after World War II, made a business out of seafood that has prospered for some 60 years. She is single handedly responsible for familiarizing many locals and tourists with more ways to enjoy every kind of food found in local waters.

Generations of women who carefully fed their children’s school friends won converts among those who never tasted crab, lobster, tuna, sea bass or abalone before. And those children’s mothers often would later be found in fish markets with their contemporaries, getting recipes for paella, cioppino and clams bordellaise.

It was a subtle and marvelously effective way to grow a market for fine seafood, and its resonance affected American tastes for things that go well with fish: wine and spices and eventually all the other elements of slow food, organic farming and perhaps specialty coffees and craft beer.

Even children got involved. A century ago, a fisherman’s son was usually taken to sea at age 6. Later, as American standards of child rearing and public education filtered through the immigrant and second-generation communities, the age crept up to perhaps 12 and boys went to sea on shorter summer trips so that their contributions to their family and their training for their future wouldn’t be impeded.

I first went to sea, when I was 9, in the engine room of the Southern Queen as a motor monkey. A motor monkey’s job was to assist the chief engineer by taking care of any parts of the machinery a grown man couldn’t reach. It was hot, dirty and dangerous work and the engine room of the Southern Queen was run by a German former U-boat engineer who was familiar with the boat’s captured Blohm & Voss diesel engine. He managed the engine room ? and the motor monkey ? just as he’d run a wartime submarine in the North Atlantic.

Even for a 9-year-old, the discipline was exacting and the hours were long; such was common for fishermen’s sons up until the end of the industry here.

That end had several causes. The first oil embargo of 1973 forced many owners to either retire or obtain larger, more cost-effective vessels. The price of fuel cut deep into San Diego’s fishing fleet as did growing awareness of environmental concerns of overfishing and “bycatch” ? particularly the capture of dolphin in the nets.

Increasing regulation against the fishing fleet and its practices had two primary effects: it scattered San Diego’s fleet to places where American laws did not apply and it prevented a San Diego-inspired remedy to save dolphin from being caught.

Joe Medina, a lifelong San Diego fisherman, created the “Medina panel,” a kind of trap door that allows dolphin to escape a purse seine. The panel quickly proved its effectiveness and was mandated for all tuna boats under the American flag at a time when changing economics transferred tuna boats to other nations. The Medina panel is not used everywhere, unfortunately, and issues of overfishing and dolphin endangerment continue.

The exhibit runs until December 30 at SDHC in Balboa Park. See for more information.

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Michael E. dunn Says:

    Overall,your article is excellent. I would just like to point out that it was Harold Medina, Joe Medina’s cousin, that created the “Medina Panel”. You can confirm this fact with August Felando, Executive Director of the American Tunaboat Association from 1960 to 1991.
    Thank you, Michael E. Dunn

  2. nancy Says:

    An impassioned history of San Diego that mixes personal experiences and contributions by the author as well as San Diego locals. Kudos.

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