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Fish Bulletin No. 38. The California Shrimp Industry


Fishing for shrimp in San Francisco Bay started about 1869. The first fishermen were Italians and there were 8 boats engaged in the fishery. They used small meshed seines 60 feet long and 8 feet deep with a bag in the center. The nets were used in deep water and took very few small shrimp or fish. They usually took from 50 to 75 pounds of shrimp in a haul and made from 3 to 5 hauls on each tide.

In 1871 the Chinese introduced the Chinese shrimp net and began to take large quantities of shrimp, but as the market for fresh shrimp has always been limited, the greater portion of the catches was dried for export to China. The Chinese fished in Tomales Bay and San Francisco Bay. The Tomales Bay camps were abandoned during the early nineties. In 1885 public opinion became aroused against the Chinese nets, as they took large quantities of young fish, and the controversy on this subject continued until 1901, when the Legislature passed a law placing a closed season on shrimp fishing for the months of May, June, July and August. The Chinese hired attorneys to fight this. A boat crew was arrested for a test case, which the State won through all the courts up to and including the United States Supreme Court. In 1905 the shrimp interests managed to get the four-month closed season removed, but at the same time it was made unlawful to export dried shrimps. In 1909 a closed season of three months, June, July and August, was again adopted, and in 1911 the use of the Chinese nets was prohibited altogether. During the period from 1900 to 1911 there was constant trouble over the shrimp fishing. Fish and game deputies were arresting the Chinese crews and there was continual agitation. In 1915 the backers of the Chinese put through a bill which again allowed shrimp fishing on south San Francisco Bay (District 13) with the Chinese shrimp nets. At about the same time a trawl was put in use in the northern end of the bay. The law prohibiting the exportation of dried shrimps was retained until 1919, when it was repealed. From 1919 to the present time Chinese shrimp nets have been used in District 13, the shrimp trawls in District 12, and not more than one-half of any one catch could be dried legally.

Shrimp fishing is carried on under several methods of organization. Frank Spenger Company and Quan Brothers maintain their own camps and buy the shrimps from the trawlers, who fish for them at a definite price per pound. The fishermen in this case have no more interest in the shrimps after they have delivered them. The Chinese camps in South San Francisco are organized under three working plans. The larger number of camps are owned by Chinese companies maintaining offices in Chinatown. These camps are leased to a group of men who work on shares among themselves. The company which owns the camp is paid for its use by handling the total catch at a definite price which allows it a profit. The price paid to the camps for fresh shrimps, for

instance, has been 5½ cents per pound for a number of years. The camp crew maintains the boats, gear and buildings, and manages its own commissary as a community affair. One man is usually camp boss and has the responsibility of supervising the activities of the camp. There are two camps which depart from this procedure. In one of these, two

men own the camp and gear and pay definite wages and found to the crew, and in the other, two men own the boat and gear and work in partnership, sometimes hiring a third man.

The present day camps vary from a 2 man outfit fishing 20 nets to a camp of 8 men using 50 nets.

The first of September is the beginning of the fiscal year in the camps. At this time the shareholders are at liberty to break away if they choose and go to some other camp. Very few groups stay together more than a year, and there is considerable shifting around, though few men leave the fishery and very few new men come in.

The beds maintained by each company are held from year to year. They were originally laid out on a first-come-first-served basis. There are unwritten rules concerning the staking of new beds. A new bed must be far enough away so it will not "cork" an old bed. "Claim jumping" is rare, but a controversy over this between two large companies nearly precipitated a tong war in 1930. The matter was, however, amicably arranged. A bed does not necessarily have to be operated to be held. The larger companies generally have two or more beds, although they seldom work more than one. In some portions of the bay the beds can be used only during the summer due to weather conditions, and these are left idle during the winter.

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