Back when sardines were cool, and you’ve gotta go back to the late 1800s for that, tuna was termed “trash fish.” As common as kittens now, tuna used to be something people kept at more than arm’s length. In those days, if you were going to eat fish out of a can, it was going to be a sardine.
The sardine explosion in the U.S. peaked during World War I, with an increase in production from 75,000 cases in 1915 to 1.4 million cases in 1918. But if the Great War was good for the sardine canneries, especially the famed Cannery Row in Monterey, the following years saw the rapid demise of the overfished sardine and the collapse of Cannery Row.
In Terminal Island, sardines caught on late, near the end of their canned-food reign. The fish did, however, lure a sizable Japanese population to San Pedro and Long Beach as sardine cannery owners on Terminal Island had sought the help of Japanese fishermen and their expertise in the early part of the century. Most of these fishermen had been working the nearby coast at Whites Point, where they harvested abalone, but they were also proficient at catching sardines.
The first cannery opened here in 1893 when the sardines disappeared up north and Albert Halfhil brought the former Golden Gate Packing Company to San Pedro and opened as the California Fish Company. After a decade of canning sardines, Halfil, a former grocer, began looking for a new product to replace the depleted fish on the American dinner table and lunch box.
He turned to tuna.
Albacore tuna was not only called “trash fish,” it also carried the nickname “hog of the sea.” Nobody ate it and when it was caught, it was ground up and used for fertilizer.
Yet, Halfil saw great promise in albacore. He experimented with removing the fish oil and packing the tuna in salad oil and found that steaming the fish gave it a nice white color and a pleasant non-fishy flavor that inspired him to refer to the product as “chicken of the sea.”
To say that the rest is history, is to skip too quickly ahead of things. For one, the product met resistance from shoppers. Sold originally by Halfhil, in 1908, in three-quarter-of-a-pound cans, grocery stores were reduced to gimmickry to divest themselves of the tuna. Some offered free bread with every purchase, others gave away coffee with the fish.
But it did catch on, however slowly at first, and by 1914 sales had increased from 700 cases in 1908 to 400,000 cases and tuna continued to boom into the 1930s to the point that the albacore catch had been largely depleted and yellowfin tuna, marketed as “fancy light meat tuna” began taking albacore’s place on the shelves.
Terminal Island grew with the tuna industry. In 1912 Wilbur Wood opened his cannery on the island and sold it two years later to canned-bean magnate Frank Van Camp, who swiped Halfhil’s offhand description of tuna and started the Chicken of the Sea label. In 1918, a Yugoslav fisherman opened the cannery that would become Star-Kist tuna and in the 1920s, nine more canneries opened on Terminal Island, employing nearly 2,000 cannery workers and a fleet of some 5,000 fishermen.
The man-made Fish Harbor was created as the port for the fishing boats as well as a neighborhood for the cannery workers. When the boats came in loaded with tuna, cannery whistle blew, summoning the workers out of their nearby houses to the plants.
Most of the workers were Japanese — about 3,000 were residents of the Fish Harbor enclave. It was a quiet, many termed it charming, community, but that all ended with the invasion of Pearl Harbor and the onset of World War II.
On Feb. 19, two months after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Terminal Island residents were given 48 hours to evacuate their homes and the island to join others in the internment camps on the mainland.
Fear and hatred was rampant. Many thought the Japanese fishing boats would be converted into assault vessels and the women were accused of espionage. Some of the canneries outright fired their Japanese workers and most of them were disbursed to camps for the duration of the war.
Worse, the Navy razed the Japanese homes and shrines. The settlement was gone for good.
The canning industry, on the other hand, continued to boom, with San Pedro’s Slav, Filipino and Mexican communities handling the work of fishing and canning, along with many workers from Long Beach. By 1946, Terminal Island was the world leader in tuna production . It had captured 80 percent of U.S. sales, and canneries were among the biggest employers in the Long Beach-Terminal Island area. And this at a time when the area was at its peak in industry.
Long Beach was doing huge business in every field. Douglas Aircraft had a workforce of nearly 50,000 during the mid-1940s and continued after the war building its fleet of DC jets and military aircraft. After merging with Boeing in 1997, its production dwindled until it rolled out its last C-17 cargo plane in 2013.
The Long Beach Naval Shipyard had a workforce of more than 16,000 men and women sprawled over its 214 acres and 165 buildings, and even after the war it continued to employ 7,500 civilian workers. It closed in 1997, laying of 3,000 workers.
Todd Shipyard, with more than 5,600 workers, continued to build Navy ships long after the war and on into the 1980s before the Navy left and the shipyard went out of business in 1989.
The Ford assembly plant built on the waterfront in the Long Beach Harbor in 1930, employed 1,700 workers, starting with the Model A production and continuing into the 1950s. The factory closed in 1958; the buildings were demolished in 1991.
Procter & Gamble, also built in the Long Beach Harbor just a year after Ford opened there, employed about 1,000 workers to turn out such products as Tide, Bold and Cheer detergents, Ivory soap and Crisco shortening. P&G had 420 employees when its closure was announced in 1997.
And so, too, went the canneries.
With profit margins shrinking, the tuna business crossed the Pacific and down to Central and South America. Today, Thailand is the largest distributor of canned tuna, which brings its own set of geopolitical baggage with it, including slavery and slightly lesser human rights violations, as well as ecologically suspect fishing methods.
Now things are utterly quiet in terms of the tuna industry in Fish Harbor and Terminal Island. Star-Kist, and the Van Camp Sea Food Division of Ralston Purina, once among Long Beach’s biggest employers, has closed its canneries on Tuna Street and headed to Mexico or plants overseas, leaving only Pan-Pacific to carry on until 1985 when it, too closed, shutting down Terminal Island’s last canning facility.
Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.
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