Voices from the Fisheries: Pioneers of the West Coast Tuna Industry
NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region worked with the Aquarium of the Pacific to record the oral histories of several pioneers of the West Coast tuna industry in San Pedro and Terminal Island. Their first-hand accounts provide important insights about the early days of the industry.
In the early 1900s, the West Coast tuna industry was born in the small coastal California town of San Pedro, near Los Angeles. An abundant coastal fishery allowed fishing and canning businesses to soon expand to nearby Terminal Island developing into a multi-million dollar industry. At the heart of it all was a thriving immigrant community. Generations of immigrants, primarily from Japan, Croatia, and Italy, harvested tuna, supported the bustling fish markets, and worked in the canneries. They explored new fishing grounds and developed novel fishing and preservation methods that influenced the global tuna industry today.
Though the large tuna fleet and canneries are now gone from the San Pedro area, many of those who were involved during that era still reside there. They are the voices of our early American tuna fishery. NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region helped the Aquarium of the Pacific with a project to record oral histories of these pioneers. Their first-hand accounts provide important insights about the early days of the industry, including its operations and management, how they navigated challenges, and what life was like in a prosperous and diverse West Coast fishing community.
Video clips from some of the interviews are also available on NOAA’s Voices from the Fisheries website.
August (Auggie) Felando
Frank Gargas, Sr.
Frank Gargas, Sr., Frank Gargas, Jr. and Steve Gargas
Historical Overview: Tuna Fishing and Canning in San Pedro – Terminal Island
While the Hollywood film industry was in its infancy, a less glamorous industry with its own stars was already underway along the shores of Southern California: the West Coast tuna industry. Established in the early 1900s in the small port town of San Pedro, the fishing and canning industry later extended to Terminal Island and rapidly developed through the innovative and pioneering spirit of immigrants primarily from Japan, Croatia, and Italy. They brought generations of fishing knowledge and experience that formed a truly American industry.
The tuna brought to the bustling fish markets and canneries of San Pedro and Terminal Island became the lifeblood of a diverse and thriving immigrant fishing community. Their activities on the water and in the canneries evolved into a multi-million dollar industry with over a century of history that spans two world wars and encompasses many political, cultural, and environmental challenges.
Individual innovations and cultural contributions helped the industry to flourish, providing an economic boon for the Port of Los Angeles. San Pedro fishermen influenced the evolution of tuna fishing techniques, many of which are still used today by fishing fleets around the world to harvest tuna.
Japanese fisherman used bamboo pole and line gear to catch skipjack tuna along the coast of Japan, and introduced these tools to U.S. tuna fishermen. This gear revolutionized the San Pedro based albacore fishing industry and was modified to catch large yellowfin tuna off the southern coast of the U.S.- Mexican border.
The combined effects of Martin J. Bogdanovich's experiments with mechanical refrigeration and Mike Newell and John Resich’s development of spray refrigeration for fish holds allowed fishermen to travel much further distances to fish for tuna, beyond coastal California and Mexico, to the productive fishing grounds off Central and South America. Prior to these inventions, distance was limited by how long the ice, used to preserve the catch at sea, would last.
Anton Misetich’s use of lightweight, durable nylon nets and Mario Puretic’s invention of the Puretic power block revolutionized the tuna fishing industry. The San Pedro fishermen led the way in using these new techniques to capture tuna far from home and bring it back to the Terminal Island canneries. The success of these early trips led to the adoption of purse seine fishing as the primary method for catching tuna and ushered in the era of converting pole and line vessels to the more efficient purse seine vessels.
Captain Frank Gargas, Sr., was the first to carry a helicopter on a tuna purse seine tuna vessel to help locate fish and assist his vessel and others in successfully catching tuna.
Anton Misetich was instrumental in the development of the “back-down procedure” that aided the release of dolphins encircled in the net (later enhanced by the Medina Panel invented by San Diego tuna Captain Harold Medina).
Canning started in San Pedro in the late 1800s. The California Fish (Cal Fish) Company was one of the first canneries, packing primarily mackerel and sardines in the early days. In 1903, Wilbur Wood worked at Cal Fish and perfected the process of canning albacore tuna using steam. Wood later founded his own canning business, the California Tuna Company.
Two of the largest tuna canneries originated in San Pedro – Van Camp and Starkist. Frank and Gilbert Van Camp bought Wilbur Wood’s California Tuna Company in 1914, starting Van Camp Seafood. It started marketing Chicken of the Sea tuna in 1930. Starkist Foods originated from the French Sardine Company of California, founded in 1917 by Martin J. Bogdanovich, Joseph M. Mardesich, James "Jakov" Mirkovich, and Nikola Vilicich. They first marketed tuna under the Starkist name in 1942, and the company changed its name to Starkist Foods in 1953.