The Rise & Fall of the Tuna Industry


Written & edited by: Arnold Fernandes

The Tuna Industry in San Diego was started by the Chinese and Japanese in the early 1890s and then was dominated by the Portuguese and Italians in the early 1920's and up until the late 1980's


A tribute to the Iron Men on Wooden Ships and in memory of my father,


1897 -1946

In Memory of my brother

Captain Clarence J. Fernandes

October 2, 1922 - May 1, 1994

In Memory  Edmund A. Gann

October 10, 1923 - February 5, 2010

Fisherman's Memorial Point Loma, California

This web site is dedicated to all my friends in the Tuna Industry present and past

"May you always have a following sea and the wind at your back"

(Bluefin Tuna)


From the East Coast to the West Coast

Many of the San Diego Fishermen started out on the East Coast and ended up in San Diego, California

to escape the ruthless storms and bitter cold of the North Atlantic Ocean.

My father came to the East Coast from Portugal and started out as a doryman on the Gloucester Schooners

fishing off of the Grand Banks in the North Atlantic.



(Yellowfin Tuna)

From the early thirties and up until the late seventies San Diego was known as the Tuna Capital of the World. over 40,000 people were employed directly or indirectly by the Tuna Industry. Tuna was being served in over 80% of all American households. Large companies like, Van Camp Seafood Co., Starkist Foods, Westgate California, Bumble Bee Seafood, Pan Pacific, and a host of other small canners processed Tuna in San Diego and up and down the West Coast. The Tuna Industry in San Diego was ranked third only to the Navy and Aircraft Industry bringing in over $30,000,000.00 a year to the San Diego economy. This isn't much by todays standards, but in those days it was a lot of money and a great boast to the City of San Diego's economy.

WWII & the Tuna Industry

During World War Two most of the U.S. Ships in the San Diego Tuna Fleet were taken over by the US Navy and used as "Yippy Boats" to shuttle food, troops, and supplies to our armed forces in the South Pacific.

Saturday June 28, 2008 on the San Diego waterfront a Memorial was dedicated to the Tuna Fleet Service World War II . honoring the men and boats that served.

August Felando (American Tuna Boat Association__________Michael Bixler (Port Commissioner)

at the Memorial Dedication June 28, 2008

San Diego, California waterfront

In 1940 just before the war broke out my father sold his boat the "Santa Ines" to the Hawaiian Pineapple & Tuna Co. and it was fishing just outside of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked.

The Santa Ines was one of the first fishing vessels to be commandeered by the Navy to help our badly damaged fleet in the South Pacific.

M.V. Santa Ines, Owned and operated by Captain Joaquim Fernandes

The Santa Ines survived the war and was returned to San Diego to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Mr. brother and I went down to the San Diego Naval Shipyard in hopes of buying it back but the boat was in such bad shape we passed it up and it was sold to an unknown bidder and eventually ended up fishing out of Mexico.

Before the war most of the Tuna Clippers in San Diego and San Pedro were independent ventures, owned and operated by one or more individuals. My father had his vessel the "Santa Ines" built in 1936 at San Diego Marine Construction ship yard, a San Diego shipyard now known as Southwest Marine. The Santa Ines cost around $90,000.00 to build. Todays super seiners would cost over $10,000,000.00.

Santa Ines Launching November, 1936

I made my first fishing trip on the Santa Ines when I was 13 years old, in those days fishing was done by hook, line and live bait. The average vessel's capacity was about 100 ton, a 200 ton boat was considered a large Tuna Clipper. Today the average Tuna Seiner's capacity is from 1200 tons to 2000 tons. A 1200 Seiner is 224' long, 42' beam, 18' draft, speed 18 knots, fuel capacity 250,000 gals diesel, range 3,600 nautical miles, crew 21 including helicopter pilot, nylon net approximately 5,280 ft.

M.V. American Queen

In Memory of Manuel Caboz


Bait Boats, Hook, Line and live bait

M.V. Santa Ines

water color by : Arnold Fernandes

On the old bait boats we used live sardines or anchovies as chum and fished from steel racks hung over the stern and port rail, so between fighting the weather, and sharks we pulled the tuna in one by one until we reached our load capacity which would take from ten days to two months or more depending on how the fish were biting. After the vessel was loaded and the fish refrigerated in the holds we would head for home to offload at the cannery, get paid, make necessary repairs to the vessel, put on provisions and fuel for the next trip, kiss the family good-bye and head out to sea again. Most of the fishing in those days was done from the coast of Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and the Gallapogos Islands

Fishing in the Racks

"Iron Men on Wooden Ships"

After WWII many large Corporations came into the picture and began buying up most of the main canneries in California and all the way to Washington State. Van Camp Sea Foods was bought by Ralston Purina, Starkist Foods was taken by S.J. Heinz, Bumble Bee Sea Foods by Castle and Cooke the Dole Pineapple people from Hawaii, and Pan Pacific by California Home Brands, better known as "CHB". So this was the beginning of the end of the independent boat owner. I eventually ended up working for Ralston Purina and then Later Castle & Cooke, ( Bumble Bee Sea Foods). The big corporations made deals that the independent boat owner couldn't refuse so they ended up as partners with of course the canners holding the controlling interest.

Blue Fin Tuna

Foreign Competition

Then came the foreign completion, Japan began shipping thousands of tons of Frozen Tuna to the United States duty free to be processed by our canners because our aging boats couldn't produce enough Tuna to meet the increasing demand in the US. So the San Diego fishermen began to look for more efficient methods of catching tuna in order to compete with the foreign trade. They began building large super seiners that could travel over three thousand miles without refueling, they switched to nylon nets using the latest technology in order to compete with the foreign trade. This looked like the answer to the San Diego Fishermen's prayers, and it was, but unfortunately not the end of their problems.


The Eastern Tropical Pacific is only place in the world where tuna is caught associated with porpoise(dolphin)porpoise and tuna travel together. So fishing for tuna associated with porpoise became the west coast tuna fishermen's biggest challenge. "How to catch the tuna with a net without harming the porpoise." so with a lot of help from the National Marine Fisheries Service, working together with the San Diego and San Pedro fishermen, they came up with a improved net and new back down procedures that could release the porpoise from the net and still retain the tuna. A lot of credit goes to Captain Harold Medina who came up with what is now known as the "Medina Panel" small mesh at the end of the net that keeps the porpoise from getting entangled so they can swim out of the net. The porpoise are forced to the end of the net by what is known as the "Back down Procedure". This procedure became standard among our west coast fishermen saving thousands of porpoise and lowering the mortality rate to almost zero.


Yellow Fin Tuna

Captain Harold Medina, Tuna Fishing Pioneer and Inventor of the Medina Panel

M.V. Keri M

M.V. Kerri M

(Owner and Captain, Harold Medina)



My son Jim in Chase Boat

IN MEMORY OF MY SON JIM, 1948 - 2014

In purse seining associated with porpoise a school of Porpoise is herded like a herd of cattle by the chase boats, (small outboard motor speedboats), after the porpoise are encircled together with the tuna the net is closed at the bottom by the purse cable and rings, the tuna a brought aboard the vessel for immediate freezing and storage. One set could net anywhere from ten ton to one hundred ton. This became a much more productive method of catching tuna than bait fishing. Production increased dramatically but unfortunately so did the porpoise mortality which brought about a great uproar form the environmental groups and the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States. In 1972 the Mammal Protection Act was passed. So in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service the US fishermen started a research and development program to implement new procedures and new equipment, including new advanced nets to lower the porpoise mortality rate. Within two years with the new back down procedure and the new Medina panels in their nets the San Diego and San Pedro fisherman brought the porpoise mortality rate down to almost "0". The US fisherman have always been concerned with saving the porpoise, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. Many times crew members will jump into the net to help a porpoise in trouble out of the net. A good friend of mine saw his son killed by a shark in the net while he was helping to release a porpoise in trouble. It is not uncommon for sharks to be in the net mixed with the tuna.




So eventually due to over regulation, rising costs, environmental pressure and a host of other problems all of the big corporations decided to close the canneries on the west coast sell the fleets to foreign interests and move on. Today the battle still goes on to keep embargoes on Tuna caught associated with dolphin or porpoise.

The US fishermen had the porpoise problem solved, but now only God knows how many dolphin are being killed by foreign fishermen who lack the knowledge and expertise of the US fishermen to save the porpoise. Our own government and the well meaning environmentalist defeated their own purpose by forcing our fleets to go foreign. Now there is very little, if any tuna processed on the west coast or in the United States. All the big canneries have closed or sold out . Fish is being packed in Mexico, Australia, Samoa, Puerto Rico, Thailand, Japan, Canada, Spain and many other countries throughout the world, and you can sure tell the difference in the quality of the pack you buy in the super markets today.




Dedicated to the Tuna Fleet Pilots

Thanks to Helicopter pilot "Tillman Jeffrey" for the inspiration

Tillman Jeffrey landing on the deck of the Odette Theresa

Hughes 500c

Hughes 500c

Brailing Tuna aboard seiner

Photo courtesy of Tillman Jeffrey

Helicopter Pilot

"A helicopter is an assembly of forty thousand loose pieces, flyng more or less in formation"

In the early days of bait fishing single engine aircraft with pontoons were used for spotting fish.

Luscomb aircraft owned by Captain George Soars in the early 40's and flown off of the Liberator

The aircraft had pontoons and was carried on top of the canopy

George removed the pontoons and used the aircraft for personal use.

George later became President of Cambell Industries in San Diego.






When the tuna clipper returns to its home port, it heads straight for the cannery where large buckets are lowered into the refrigerated wells, the tuna is transferred to large bins for weighing on the scales. Then the tuna is stored in a large freezer waiting to be processed.


Fresh water is gently sprayed over the fish. It takes about five hours to thaw a bin of fish, depending on their size.


The tuna's internal organ are removed and sent by conveyor belt to the fish oil separation department or rendering plant.


The cleaned tuna are placed together in large pans, according to size. The pans are put on racks and ready for cooking. The fish are cooked under steam pressure. The length of cooking time varies according to the size of the tuna.


After cooking, the fish are cooled in a temperature-controlled cooling room. This process is used to maintain the natural juices and flavor of the tuna.


After cooling, the racks of fish are sent to the packing room, where the head, tail, and skin are removed. This is called pre-skinning. Then skilled workers (cleaners) separate the bones and red meat from the tender light or white meat. This light or white meat is then sent to the packing machines. The parts of the fish which are not canned are processed into fish oil or fish meal, primarily used as animal feed.


The packing machines place the light or white meat tuna into cans, carefully measuring the amount of tuna placed into each can. They handle up to 500 cans per minute. Soybean oil, or distilled water with a special broth is added to enhance the flavor of the tuna. The cans are then vacuum sealed.

The sealed cans are put in a retort, where the tuna is cooked again under high steam pressure, this assures that any bacteria in the can is eliminated. After retorting, the cans are cooled overnight, and then taken to the labeling and packing machines, where they will be cased, taken to the Warehouse ready for shipping.

Most of the tuna processing today is done by foreign canners and distributed throughout the world including the United States.



The Sun Beauty's Last Voyage: A true story  written & edited by: Arnold Fernandes



Visit the San Diego Maritime Museum

Worldwide wholesalers of marine fuels and lubricants


Another great Historical Web Site:


Arnold's Hobbies

Ship Modeling, Oil painting, Photography and Computer

Models by: Arnold Fernandes

British WWI Sopwith Camel

Martinac 1200 Ton Super Seiner -------340 Ton Tuna Clipper---Paramount----------90 Ton Santa Ines------------


BY: Arnold Fernandes

My thanks to Bill Blackman,artist and teacher for teaching me the art of painting Seascapes at the Pallett & Easle in Oceanside, Ca.

Thank you for visiting my site

Site last updated on April 2, 2017