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American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    American Tuna
    Book Description:

    In a lively account of the American tuna industry over the past century, celebrated food writer and scholar Andrew F. Smith relates how tuna went from being sold primarily as a fertilizer to becoming the most commonly consumed fish in the country. InAmerican Tuna, the so-called "chicken of the sea" is both the subject and the backdrop for other facets of American history: U.S. foreign policy, immigration and environmental politics, and dietary trends.Smith recounts how tuna became a popular low-cost high-protein food beginning in 1903, when the first can rolled off the assembly line. By 1918, skyrocketing sales made it one of America's most popular seafoods. In the decades that followed, the American tuna industry employed thousands, yet at at mid-century production started to fade. Concerns about toxic levels of methylmercury, by-catch issues, and over-harvesting all contributed to the demise of the industry today, when only three major canned tuna brands exist in the United States, all foreign owned. A remarkable cast of characters- fishermen, advertisers, immigrants, epicures, and environmentalists, among many others-populate this fascinating chronicle of American tastes and the forces that influence them.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95415-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Prologue
    (pp. 1-8)

    For thousands of years vast schools of tuna have frequented the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts of what is today the United States. Until the twentieth century, however, few Americans had ever tasted the fish. The first evidence for anyone actually eating tuna in North America dates to just a few thousand years ago in the Channel Islands, just off the Southern California coast. Precisely who these people were and what happened to them is unknown, but they did catch and eat tuna, at least on occasion, as tuna bones are found in abundance at some archaeological sites. Later, the...


    • ONE Angling for a Big Fish
      (pp. 11-25)

      Charles Holder, an East Coast naturalist, first visited Santa Catalina Island, off the Southern California coast, in 1886. Hoping to catch one of the large tuna known to frequent the island’s shores during the summer months, he brought along his freshwater rod and reel. There were plenty of fishermen on the island, and they caught plenty of tuna, but they did so using thick hand-lines with multiple hooks. They tied the lines to boats or piers and dropped them into the water. When fish hit the hooks, the fishermen waited until they were exhausted fighting against the line, and then...

    • TWO Looks Like Chicken
      (pp. 26-45)

      Albert P. Halfhill, a heavyset man with a cowcatcher mustache, opened a can and offered its contents to Sig Seeman, a food wholesaler and distributor in New York. Halfhill was one of the founders of the California Fish Company, a small cannery in East San Pedro, not far from Los Angeles. Halfhill had never met Seeman; it was a cold call. Halfhill was making the rounds of East Coast distributors to promote a new product: albacore. It was a tough sell in 1908, because few Americans had heard of the fish, and those who had, disliked it. Some considered albacore...

    • THREE Enemy Aliens
      (pp. 46-69)

      The most important reason for the pre–World War II success of tuna fishing in California was the involvement of Japanese-born fishermen. Their involvement in the industry started almost by accident. One Sunday in March 1901, twelve Japanese men who worked as cleaners and carpenters in the Southern Pacific Railroad yard in Los Angeles hopped a train to San Pedro. As they strolled along the beach, so the story goes, they spotted the large, unmistakable shells of abalone, a large mollusk whose meat was a highly prized delicacy in Japan, but not appreciated by most Americans. Japanese and Chinese divers...

    • FOUR This Delicious Fish
      (pp. 70-84)

      By the beginning of the twentieth century, tuna had been popularized by magazine and newspaper stories detailing the exploits of sports-fishermen, and their astounding catches. Most Americans, however, were unaware that tuna was also a delicious, nutritious food, and the few who were willing to try it had no clue how to prepare and serve it. This was a very serious problem for canners and grocers: how do you sell a food product if potential consumers have no idea how to eat it?

      Early tuna canners ran small operations, even by the standards of the day, and they simply didn’t...

    • FIVE Caucasians Who Have Tasted and Liked This Speciality
      (pp. 85-100)

      West Coast cities, especially San Francisco and Los Angeles, with significant Japanese-American populations, had many Japanese restaurants, a few dating to the nineteenth century. New York, on the other hand, had a very small Japanese community. The few Japanese restaurants established there before World War II catered almost exclusively to Japanese expatriates and visiting tourists from Japan. To attract a wider clientele, Japanese restaurateurs offered sukiyaki, tempura, and other Americanized dishes.¹ During the early 1950s, this began to change as Japanese markets in New York began to sell raw fish for sashimi and sushi to resident Japanese nationals, and raw...


    • SIX Foreign Tuna
      (pp. 103-115)

      Despite tuna’s incredible culinary success in the mid-twentieth century, not all was well in the American tuna industry. A major problem was foreign competition, initially from Japan. Even before Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, the American fishing industry was affected by increasing tensions between the two nations. The U.S. government purchased thirty purse seine vessels that were converted to patrol boats and sent out to guard the Alaskan coast. Tuna boats had to request permission to fish in Central and South American waters. When the war began, the eighty or so tuna vessels then at sea...

    • SEVEN Tuna Wars
      (pp. 116-132)

      On the evening of March 26, 1955, fifteen American vessels were drifting 27 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Two of these, theSanta Ana,a small tuna clipper, and theArctic Maid,a 980-ton freezer ship, were approached by an Ecuadorian patrol boat.The Arctic Maidwas boarded by an Ecuadorian officer and crewman who inspected the ship and interviewed its captain, Homer Kyros. Kyros later complained that he did not understand Spanish, and the officer did not understand English. The Ecuadorian boarding party returned to its patrol boat with theArctic Maid’slog and charts. According to Kyros,...

    • EIGHT Porpoise Fishing
      (pp. 133-147)

      In the spring of 1966 William F. Perrin, a biology student who was graduating from San Diego State University, was looking for a summer job before he went on to study for an advanced degree at UCLA. One of the places he visited was the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries at La Jolla, California. He was told that they had no jobs, but he left his name and phone number anyway. A few weeks later he received a call from the bureau’s scientist responsible for research on fishing technology. The bureau needed someone to collect data on the performance of...

    • NINE Parts Per Million
      (pp. 148-160)

      Dr. Bruce McDuffie, an analytical chemistry professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, had been examining a variety of freshwater fish, hoping to learn something about the amount of mercury in them when a graduate student remarked: “The only fish I eat is tuna. Why don’t you analyze some?” McDuffie thought it unlikely that tuna would have much mercury. Seawater does contain naturally occurring mercury, but only at a level of about 0.5 parts per billion (ppb), and the oceans are so vast that any mercury entering the water from pollution or industrial waste would soon be...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 161-172)

    The American tuna fleet was the largest in the world at the end of the Second World War. This began to change in the early 1950s, when foreign imports flooded into the United States. Fishermen and cannery workers in other countries were willing to accept a fraction of the wages that American workers expected. Even with tariffs, it was still lucrative for foreign companies to import frozen and canned tuna into the United States, and the American tuna industry suffered the consequences.

    Historically, tuna fishing was a family affair. Boats were owned by families and passed down from father to...

  9. APPENDIX: Historical Tuna Recipes
    (pp. 173-182)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 183-220)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-236)
  12. Index
    (pp. 237-242)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-243)