San Diego’s Fishing Heritage: A Story of Innovation, Resilience, and Cultural Diversity

San Diego fishermen using the pole-and-line method to catch tuna. Image: San Diego History Center

San Diego fishermen using the pole-and-line method to catch tuna. Image: San Diego History Center

Before the arrival of Europeans

Fishing in the region now known as San Diego dates back thousands of years. The Kumeyaay Indians who inhabited San Diego County long before the arrival of Europeans were skilled at harvesting food from the bays and ocean. They employed arrows, spears, and nets to catch over 45 varieties of fish and 60 varieties of shellfish.

In 1778, the Kumeyaay offered fish (albeit less desirable species) to Spanish colonists at the Mission and Presidio. According to Richard Carrico, Professor in the American Indian Studies department at San Diego State University, for a given period of time, these acts of charity may have helped the Spanish settlers survive. Unfortunately, by the late 19th century, the Kumeyaay had been almost entirely displaced from the coasts as a result of pressure from the Spanish and an influx of Chinese immigrants.

The beginning of an industry

These pioneers from the East were met with racism and hostility and were largely excluded from economic opportunities. Fishing presented itself as one of the few industries where competition was not a barrier to entry. Because of their relatively low population and the absence of a strong fishing economy, San Diegans were not threatened by Chinese dominance of the industry and their benefit from San Diego’s rich coastal resources.

Chinese fishermen began to export dried fish and abalone, selling the remaining abalone shells to local jewelry-makers. However, the Chinese fishing fleet drastically reduced starting in 1885 and fishermen could not withstand newly implemented regulations on abalone and shrimp exports. Portuguese fishermen who had been fishing for tuna since 1880 subsequently moved into the abandoned settlements of the Chinese fishermen.

In the late 19th century, California received a wave of European immigrants, including Italians from maritime backgrounds. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a number of Italian fishermen resettled in San Diego, bringing their boats and gear along with them. Within a short period of time, the San Diego fishing industry had exceeded market demand, and it was clear that expanding the infrastructure of the cannery would be the only way to efficiently access markets nationwide.


San Diego’s first cannery opened on San Diego Bay in 1909, designated specifically for sardines. During a lull in the sardine fishery,  Albert Halfhill began experimenting with canning albacore in San Pedro, California. He marketed his “white meat” albacore tuna as “chicken of the sea,” and it soon became widely popular throughout the United States. In 1911, San Diego opened up its first tuna cannery, and in the ensuing half-century, the city would earn its title as the “Tuna Capital of the World.” By the 1960s, San Diego’s third-largest industry would be tuna, preceded only by the Navy and aerospace. Catching, canning, and marketing of tuna would employ up to 40,000 San Diegans.

Van Camp Seafood Cannery employee holding a tuna, 1931. Image: San Diego History Center

Van Camp Seafood Cannery employee holding a tuna, 1931. Image: San Diego History Center

Throughout this development, a new immigrant population of fishermen had come on the scene: the Japanese. In 1913 a group of Japanese fishermen settled 300 miles south of San Diego in Magdalena Bay and Turtle Bay. They introduced long, flexible, and exceptionally durable bamboo poles which would soon revolutionize the American tuna industry. This pole-and-line technique was preferred by canneries because it could pierce the tuna without damaging the meat. Some of these fishermen migrated north, and by 1923 Japanese fishermen made up 50% of San Diego crews.

When the United States entered World War II, many Americans relied on tuna to supplement food rations. Tuna sandwiches became a staple in the American diet, as the fish was relatively cheap and a good source of protein. The Japanese (ironically, some of whom were tuna fishermen) faced racism and persecution during this time period. Japanese fishermen who crossed into international waters were not permitted to return to the United States. Like other Japanese-American citizens, Japanese-American fishermen and their families were rounded up and relocated to internment camps.

San Diego’s Italian community was also affected by wartime policies, though they fared far better than American citizens of Japanese descent. Kettner Boulevard, which runs through Little Italy and Downtown, became a line of demarcation during World War II. Italians who did not have citizenship status could not cross west of Kettner. This meant that Italian fishermen who were not American citizens had to find new livelihoods until the end of the war in 1945.

Changes to fishing in the mid-twentieth century

Post-World War II denotes the era of mechanization in fishing. The technological shift was a response to a changing biological, economic, and geopolitical landscape. Fishermen were witnessing the depletion of some fish stocks, and the industry was threatened by cheap imports. Furthermore, Latin American countries imposed new laws that restricted foreigners from fishing there. This was a hard blow to San Diego tuna fishermen who caught the majority of their baitfish off Latin American coastlines.

Starting in the 1950s, nets replaced poles for catching tuna. Image: San Diego History Center

Starting in the 1950s, nets replaced poles for catching tuna. Image: San Diego History Center

In the late 1950s, San Diego fishermen began to convert their boats to seiners with large nets that could effectively capture large schools of tuna. This reduced the pressure of international competition and eliminated the need for foreign-caught baitfish. However, fishermen were now faced with a new challenge: hostile environmental groups who detested the ecological impacts of seiners, namely the untimely deaths of porpoises and dolphins. These marine mammals were frequently caught as bycatch, an inevitable consequence of the new technology.

In 1975, “kill quotas” were introduced, requiring the tuna fleet to minimize bycatch. The industry was further crippled by the movement of canneries overseas, a result of labor costs and foreign competition. By the early 1980s, two of San Diego’s most historic canneries, Bumble Bee Seafoods and the Van Camp Seafood Cannery, had closed their doors.

The legacy continues

Although it reached its peak around the year 1920, the San Diego fishing industry is still very much alive. Today there are roughly 130 active vessels in the San Diego fleet. In 2015, California passed legislation, dubbed “Pacific to Plate,” which allows fishermen to sell their catch directly to the public and to collectively organize a market under a single permit. This policy is a direct result of the lobbying efforts of San Diego fishermen and local seafood advocates passionate about maintaining a thriving local seafood system which benefits both fishing families and consumers.

Today San Diego fishermen are the stewards of our precious marine ecosystem; they adhere to strict national regulations and practice science-based sustainable fisheries management to maintain fish stocks for future generations. A State Apprenticeship Program is currently being developed by the California Sea Grant Extension Program which will provide hands-on training to aspiring commercial fishermen.

San Diego may have once been known as the “Tuna Capital of the World,” but residents can enjoy nearly 60 other species of fish and shellfish that are caught off the county’s coastlines. The Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, selling some of the freshest, tastiest seafood available, serves as both a tribute to our past and a testament to our future. The story of San Diego’s fishing heritage is a story of adaptation, innovation, and resilience. The industry owes a great deal of its success to the rich cultural diversity that has propelled it forward since its inception.

Ultimately, consumer purchasing practices will determine the viability of fishing as a livelihood in San Diego. Those who choose to buy local seafood play an active role in preserving this unique facet of our city’s character. A promising sign for the future can be found in the crowds of people that line up each Saturday morning in front of the Tuna Harbor Dockside Market. The local fishing industry may be on the brink of a new era, an era marked by sustainability, traceability, and responsibility. Working together, fishermen and consumers can ensure that San Diego remains a flourishing seafood destination for generations to come.

A Busy saturday morning at tuna harbor dockside market. image: California sea grant

A Busy saturday morning at tuna harbor dockside market. image: California sea grant

Written by Livvy Stanforth, Intern