July 6, 2016

King Tuna

By Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

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Photo courtesy of the San Pedro Historical Society

Hollywood, freeways, the aerospace industry, the beach, the mountains, Olvera Street and the Dodgers — they all probably would be found on most people’s lists of iconic images of L.A. life.

It may surprise most of us, then, to learn that tuna probably deserves a place in that pantheon, too. For several decades in the past century, L.A. and San Pedro tuna satisfied much of the world’s hunger for the fish, and the story of its rise and fall touches on almost every element of life in Southern California. Tuna was so big it earned a place on the official seal of Los Angeles County.

At the start of the 20th century, tuna was eaten only by a few immigrant communities, including Japanese and Italians. Once Southern California entrepreneurs devised a way to can tuna that kept it lighter in color and decreased the fishy odor, the industry, based in San Pedro, began to take off, and canneries proliferated on Terminal Island. Japanese and Japanese-Americans, who built a village and a thriving community there, were at the heart of it all, the men working on fishing boats and the women in canneries.

As the 20th century progressed, L.A.’s tuna business encapsulated U.S. and world history: the Great Depression and world wars spurred tuna’s popularity as a cheap protein source; the tuna fishing industry became entangled in international trade wars and federal regulations; Terminal Island was cleared out and bulldozed in 1942 — its residents sent to prison camps — in fear of Japanese espionage.

August Felando ’52, Law ’54, who was president of the American Tunaboat Association for more than 30 years. The author of “The Tuna/Porpoise Controversy,” started fishing tuna with his father in 1947. He says tuna was a defining L.A. industry for almost six decades. “It was a dynamic industry that involved a range of other industries, from building to shipyards, refrigeration, electronics, shipping, trade and the food industry.”

By the century’s end, tuna was the fuel for sushi’s popularity, an example of U.S. job flight, a heated topic of natural resource sustainability and a completely foreign-based industry. In 2001, Chicken of the Sea closed its full-scale cannery on Terminal Island, the last on the U.S. mainland. But tuna was king in Southern California for a long time.

Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is editor of LMU Magazine. He is also host of “Off Press,” the podcast of LMU Magazine. You can find other writings of his at his Editor’s Blog. Follow him on Twitter @jwlmageditor.