Taking Tuna Mainstream
If you’ve ever eaten a tuna-fish sandwich, you’re part of the legacy of an industry that was born on Terminal Island. This was the place that helped change how Americans ate by popularizing canned tuna as a substitute for chicken.
Terminal Island spawned two iconic tuna brands that are household names to this day, and it helped Los Angeles become a world-class industrial hub. A tuna even appears on the official seal of Los Angeles County.
From Beach Resort to American Households
Terminal Island was known mainly in the late 19th century for its luxurious resort town, Brighton Beach, and as a rural beach haven for artists and writers. Fishing was not a large part of the island’s activities until 1893, when the first cannery opened.
Relocated from San Francisco after a slump in sardine fishing and renamed from its former Golden Gate Packing Company, California Fish Co. was located on the main channel of the island across from First Street in San Pedro. It specialized in sardines until the catch started to decline around the turn of the twentieth century, and they needed to find a new product.
In 1903, the company developed a new process to can cooked tuna, which was plentiful in local waters. Tuna had been available only on the fresh fish market. In a bid to introduce the fish into American households, CalFish capitalized on its relatively un-fishy flavor by steaming it white, packing it in salad oil, and marketing it as an affordable substitute for chicken.
Canned tuna was slow to catch on, but thanks to some clever promotion—including persuading grocers to give it away with the purchase of coffee—it took off and slowly but surely became one of the fastest growing industries in the Harbor.
The introduction of canned tuna coincided with the arrival of a small group of Japanese abalone fishermen from nearby White Point. Bringing expertise from their home region of Wakayama Prefecture, they soon proved to be extremely talented at commercial tuna fishing. Fishermen of Italian, Yugoslavian, Austrian, and Japanese descent made up most of the fishing fleet, and the Japanese were particularly noted for their skill.
One of the men attributed with inventing the tuna canning process, Wilbur Wood, opened his own company on Terminal Island in 1912. In 1914, he sold it to Frank Van Camp of the canned bean company. That same year, the Los Angeles Times raved, “There is no other industry in Southern California that has had such a remarkable growth as tuna canning.”
The following year, the newly created Fish Harbor became the regional hub for tuna canning. Van Camp had masterminded a successful campaign to introduce tuna to the average American consumer as a staple good, by proposing that the San Pedro canners pool their advertising funds and set the price at a low ten cents per can. The results were immediate.
With his son Gilbert, Van Camp would help transform the industry and create what later became Chicken of The Sea. This iconic brand is still known for its jingle (“Ask any mermaid you happen to see, What’s the best tuna? Chicken of the Sea!”) and the beautiful mermaid that has appeared on cans and advertising since 1952. She turns sixty this year, still lovely and now the face of the brand on Facebook and Twitter.
In 1918, Yugoslavian fisherman Martin Bogdanovich opened a cannery that would later become Star-Kist. This brand still thrives today and in the early 1960s introduced the iconic phrase “Sorry, Charlie!” to American pop culture via its spokes-fish, Charlie the Tuna—now fifty years old and still going.
By the 1920s, nine more canneries had opened on Terminal Island to keep up with the growing demand. In all, they employed around 1,800 cannery workers (mostly women) and 4,800 fishermen representing a range of cultures. Fishing and production capabilities expanded with new technologies including at-sea refrigeration, purse-seiner boats that revolutionized commercial fishing, and intensive research on the habits of various tuna species. By 1929, seventy-five percent of California's tuna catch was being canned in Los Angeles Harbor.
A Company Town
The canneries had exclusive contracts with the Japanese fishermen, many of whose wives also worked there. The companies built housing on the island for the Japanese families to keep them within earshot of the whistles announcing the arrival of a fresh catch and the start of the workday. A neighborhood quickly grew to support the growing community, and a distinctive local culture flourished. Terminal Island was a company town, and the business was tuna.
In 1942, the nearly 3,000 Japanese residents of Terminal Island became the first in the nation to be relocated to World War II internment camps. Other workers filled in the gaps, and the ensuing years brought more Mexican and Pilipino workers and American fishermen.
By 1946, Terminal Island had the highest tuna production volume in the world. Pan-Pacific Fisheries opened the world’s most modern cannery in 1946. The industry reached its peak in the 1940s and ‘50s, as canned tuna became ubiquitous in American kitchens. During that period, the tuna canned on Terminal Island accounted for 80 percent of the 12 million cases produced annually in the U.S.
In 1952, Star-Kist opened the world’s largest tuna cannery on Terminal Island. It was designed by prominent engineer and designer John K. Minasian, who also designed the Space Needle.
In 1957, an image of a tuna was added to the official seal of the County of Los Angeles to symbolize the county’s vital fishing industry.
Changing Times, Last Remnants
The strain of years of foreign competition started to show in the 1960s, thanks to a combination of cheaper labor costs, less regulation, and a legislative loophole that set a much lower trade tariff for fish packed in water than in oil.
Facing stiff competition from foreign importers, Star-Kist and Van Camp announced that they were opening plants in the South Pacific in 1962. The following year, both companies were acquired by multinational food conglomerates.
The final blow to the tuna industry occurred in the 1970s, as increasingly health- conscious American consumers started buying more fish packed in brine (“spring water”) than in oil. The low tariff on water-packed fish became even more of a challenge.
Unable to turn a profit, Star-Kist officially closed its Terminal Island production facilities in 1984. While Pan Pacific was also absorbed into a larger company, it remained on American shores until it closed in 1995. Chicken of the Sea was the last in the area to close, in 2001. Today, the only tangible reminder of Los Angeles’ long-time title as the king of tuna are the historic cannery buildings now threatened with demolition.