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Fish Bulletin No. 51. The High Seas Tuna Fishery of California


The following paper has been compiled as an answer to the innumerable questions constantly asked by an interested public about the tuna fishery. Whereas the tunas of this coast are now the object of a biological study by the California State Fisheries Laboratory, this paper is in no sense a contribution to this study. It is merely a limited description of the fishery and the boats engaged therein.

It is limited because it covers only one — the most important, the most interesting and most spectacular — branch of the tuna fishery, namely the high seas live bait fishery for skipjack and yellowfin tuna. Both these species are also caught by purse seine boats and by small live bait boats fishing in local waters, but their catches are minor and erratic. It is the steady deliveries of the larger bait boats throughout the year upon which the industry depends. In actual value of the product, tuna is second only to salmon on the entire Pacific coast. In tonnage landed, it ranks second in the fisheries of California. In 1936 the total pack of tuna approximated 2,600,000 cases. Virtually the entire catch of these two species is canned in southern California, with San Diego and San Pedro as the home ports of the fleet. Negligible quantities are sold to a limited fresh fish trade.

There are five so-called tunas taken in California and each supports a fleet of more or less specialized boats which contribute to California's tuna pack. Descriptions of these fisheries may be found elsewhere, but the present account pertains exclusively to the live bait, hook and line fishery for yellowfin and skipjack followed by the larger boats.

The tuna fleet comprises about 70 boats, built at a cost approaching $6,000,000. According to the size of the individual vessel, this fleet may be divided arbitrarily into two parts. Those under 90 feet are herein referred to as the "smaller tuna boats" and these will be discussed only incidentally. Those over 90 feet are designated as the "larger tuna boats," and the 50 vessels comprising this fleet are essentially the subject of this article. All statements and descriptions apply therefore to a representative average of this fleet.

These tuna boats are the largest fishing vessels registered in this state and they were expressly designed and built to exploit the most extended fishery on this coast. On a single trip of perhaps seven or eight weeks they may travel a total distance of 6000 to 8000 miles and range 3000 miles from home. Necessarily, they are large for they must accommodate sufficient fuel capacity, a refrigerated fish hold that will carry a paying load, and a crew large enough to catch it. Their fuel capacity ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 gallons; their fish capacity from 150 to 350 tons; and the size of crew from 12 to 20 men, according to the size of the vessel.

Almost any day at San Diego one of these tuna boats may be seen preparing for a trip. With all repairs completed, she proceeds to the fuel docks where the tanks are filled with diesel and lubricating oil. From here she proceeds to the icing dock. Three-hundred-pound blocks of ice are transferred from the waiting trucks to the conveyor and carried by this to the crusher overhead, from which they pour in an endless stream of fine particles to the blower beneath. This blower is used to distribute the ice uniformly to the farthest corners of the hold, thus eliminating much unnecessary shovelling.

Meanwhile, loads of provisions and miscellaneous stores come aboard and the erstwhile trim tuna boat now takes on a dishevelled look of chaos, with crates and bales and boxes piled everywhere. Late in the afternoon order is restored and the vessel is deserted except for one or two who keep the engine watch, for with the taking on of ice an auxiliary is started to run the refrigerating plant and bait pumps, and one or the other auxiliary runs continuously for the duration of the trip. The sailing time is set and the remainder of the crew has gone ashore to spend the intervening time at home. Later in the evening the tuna boat will sail. With three long blasts on the whistle, a last farewell to the families and friends ashore, she heads for sea. The long trip has begun.

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