American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food

American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food

by Andrew F. Smith

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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. In American 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520261846
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/08/2012
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #37
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Andrew F. Smith teaches Food Studies at the New School University in New York. He is the author of Fast Food and Junk Food: An Encyclopedia of What We Love to Eat, Potato: A Global History, and Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, among many other books. For more information, please visit

Read an Excerpt

American Tuna

The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food

By Andrew F. Smith


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95415-1


Angling for a Big Fish

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 just pulled them in, which usually took a few minutes. Holder proclaimed this method to be unsportsmanlike; he believed that rods and reels gave the fish a fighting chance.

In Catalina, Holder met José Felice Presiado ("Mexican Joe"), the only professional boatman on the island at the time. Presiado had arrived in Catalina at the age of seven from Sonora, Mexico, about 1851. By the 1880s he owned a broad-beamed yawl that he used to take fishermen around the island. Holder hired Presiado to row him to places where he could fish with his rod and reel. Holder and Presiado encountered a school of "leaping tuna," as Holder called them. The tuna weren't leaping out of the water for the fun of it. They were chasing flying fish that jumped into the air as they tried to escape the pursuing tuna. Flying fish have large pectoral fins that allow them to glide more than 150 feet over the surface of the water. The much heavier and less aerodynamic tuna could leap 10 to 15 feet in the air before crashing back into the ocean. Holder vividly described the scene: "Down the Santa Catalina channel they came like a cyclone, turning the quiet waters into foam, in and out of which the big fishes darted like animated arrows or torpedoes, while the air was filled with flocks of flying fishes fleeing in every direction like grasshoppers." Holder and Mexican Joe followed the school for several miles, and Holder cast into the leaping tuna with his rod and reel. He lost every line he cast and didn't catch a fish. This came as no surprise to Presiado, who couldn't imagine why Holder—or anyone else for that matter—would want to catch tuna with a rod and reel; fishermen using hand lines always caught as many as they wanted with very little effort.

Holder's initial failure did not discourage him. He came back season after season, and he even convinced others to go after tuna with rods and reels. Despite all the skill of some of the world's best and most experienced anglers, the results were always the same: the tuna inevitably won, breaking fish lines, often absconding with the rods and reels and occasionally pulling fishermen overboard, as the tuna swam off into the channel.

In 1898, Holder acquired the latest fishing gear with a stronger rod and reel. This worked. He finally succeeded in his twelve-year quest when he landed a 183-pound tuna on June 1. Two weeks later he convened a meeting of sportfishermen at the Hotel Metropole in Avalon, Catalina's largest community. These men, who enjoyed the challenge of fishing for tuna with rod and reel, created the Tuna Club, thereby inventing American saltwater sportfishing. The exploits of sportfishermen and some women alerted the American public to this most unusual fish, and consequently, the largely unknown tuna fish would soon be upgraded from a trash fish to an aquatic celebrity in the American imagination.


Catalina's Tuna Club was not the first fishing club in America. Sport-fishing, an upper-class British tradition brought to America in colonial times, developed a broader social base in nineteenth-century America as railroads made once-remote streams, rivers, and lakes more accessible. Accompanying these shifts were changing views toward nature, a recognition of the disappearance of the natural wonders of America, and an increasing yearning to preserve wilderness areas. As America urbanized in the nineteenth century, many well-to-do Americans took up outdoor leisure activities, such as camping, hunting, and fishing. After the Civil War many Americans began to enjoy sportfishing.

Sportfishing differed considerably from traditional commercial or subsistence fishing where the most efficient methods—hand lines, nets, spears, guns, or on occasion dynamite—were employed to acquire as many fish as possible in the shortest period of time to generate the maximum amount of money with the least effort. Sportfishing was a leisure activity with a very different mind-set. It required a set of gentlemanly practices designed to pit the fisherman's skill against a cunning fish. Fishing clubs, such as the Schuylkill Fishing Company in Philadelphia, were organized to provide upper-class men with an escape from their everyday world. By the early nineteenth century, angling clubs had emerged in many American cities. The purpose of these clubs was primarily social, with a little fishing on the side (although not always with a rod and reel). From these upper-class clubs evolved organizations that would establish the rules for angling using hooks, lines, flies, lures, rods, and reels. As the century progressed, American manufacturers began making and marketing proper fishing gear that had formerly been imported from England. By the end of the century, magazines such as Forest and Stream and American Angler, and more than 100 books, exalted the art of freshwater sportfishing.

Angling clubs, fishing magazines, and sportfishing books promoted particular methods of fishing and a code of proper conduct for fishermen. Particular fish, especially those with "character" that could put up a fight, were identified as "game" fish. Anglers were encouraged to catch them, while other fish were classified as "rough" or "coarse," and not worth a genteel angler's time. These methods and guidelines helped distinguish upper- and middle-class anglers from the subsistence or working-class fishermen, as well as reducing the sportfishing catch and helping to prevent depletion of fish populations. In many states, laws were passed to regulate fishing—shooting fish, dynamiting ponds, and using nets for fishing became illegal. Licenses were required, and other restrictions were developed. These rules and regulations applied to freshwater fishing in inland lakes and streams, and not to ocean fishing, which remained a commercial activity.

State governments showed an interest in fisheries after the Civil War. Massachusetts became the first state to establish a commission on fish, in 1865, and several other states followed. It wasn't until 1871 that the federal government began to regulate freshwater fishing, but at the time no one considered saltwater fishing a sport.


Some nineteenth-century sportsmen did fish for tuna. As Dr. Pierre Fortin, the Canadian magistrate for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, observed, fishing for tuna was "quite exciting, although tiresome and requiring a good deal of skill, as in the efforts of these fish to escape they pull with such violence as to endanger the lives of the fishermen by dragging them overboard." The few fishermen who were interested in catching tuna employed baited hand-lines with multiple hooks connected by small ropes attached firmly to their boats or docks. When the tuna took the bait, the fishermen just let the fish struggle until exhausted, and then easily hauled them in.

Tuna was common off New Brunswick, Canada, reported an observer in 1844, but it was "rarely taken, because its flesh is not prized for food." In the same year, British visitor Philip Tocque was surprised to find that few fishermen in Newfoundland were aware that tuna "constitutes a sumptuous article of food, or that it is even fit to eat." Off Cape Cod, bluefin were common during the summer months, and large fish were occasionally harpooned for oil: an average-sized tuna yielded about twenty-four gallons. Fish oil was used primarily for commercial purposes, such as making soap and paints and tanning hides.

In the 1870s, Congress approved budgets that included a study of saltwater fish in American coastal waters. Spencer Fullerton Baird, the commissioner of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, asked David Starr Jordan, one of the foremost naturalists of the day and then a professor at Indiana University, to conduct a study of the Pacific coast fisheries. Jordan selected one of his brightest students, Charles H. Gilbert, to assist him in this investigation. They surveyed the West Coast from British Columbia to Baja California. Virtually the entire survey was conducted within a few miles of shore, as their small boats were "too frail to face the dangers of the open sea," as Jordan later put it. Jordan and Gilbert did not locate any tuna, which they expected to find near San Clemente Island, off the coast of Southern California, but they did find albacore, then scientifically considered a genus separate from tuna. Albacore, they pointed out in their report, was caught chiefly for sport, and it was "little valued as a food-fish" as it was "a very gamy fish." Large fish sold for about twenty-five cents apiece.

At the time of their visit, West Coast fishing was conducted by a wild collection of fishermen, whose vessels included "Chinese junks, lateen-rigged Italian boats and New England whale boats." Some did fish for tuna, but they were recently arrived immigrants, especially from Italy, Portugal, Japan, and the Azores, who had eaten tuna in their homelands. In San Diego, some fishermen launched a business, catching, and then salting and pickling albacore, which was abundant in the bay and within a few miles of the coast. It was sold to Japanese immigrant field laborers in California and Hawaii. This business was the exception: most fishermen who caught tuna dumped them overboard far out at sea so they wouldn't foul the beaches, or took them into port where the carcasses were converted into fertilizer or fish oil.

Writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, George Brown Goode, who became U.S. Fish Commissioner when Baird died, observed that despite tuna's excellent reputation in the Old World and its abundance in American waters, it was hardly ever eaten by Americans—although oil from tuna was used for lamps.


American saltwater sportfishing was transformed by one man: Charles Frederick Holder, a naturalist who spent years working with his father, Joseph Bassett Holder, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The father-and-son team spent five years studying the growth of coral reefs off the coast of Florida. Charles Holder subsequently served as a consultant to the New York Aquarium in 1875 and then devoted his life to writing books for adolescents.

Charles Holder already had exposure to tuna before he arrived in Southern California in 1885. When he was young, his father had acquired and mounted an 8-foot-long, 1,000-pound bluefin at the Lynn Museum in Massachusetts. Then Holder heard about the tuna averaging 1,000 pounds each that had been captured in Gloucester harbor. During the 1870s, he came across another 9-foot bluefin, which he estimated weighed about 1,200 pounds, in New York's Fulton Market. He carefully measured that fish and published his findings in Scientific American. Holder began to wonder what it would be like to catch one of these monsters with a rod and reel. For a time he fished for tuna off the coast of Maine's Boon Island. But in two seasons, he never even saw one.

Holder's only son died at the age of five months in 1885. He and his wife moved from New York to Pasadena, California, to distract themselves from their loss. At the time, Southern California's natural habitat was still relatively pristine and largely unexplored from botanical and zoological standpoints. Taking his rod and reel with him, Holder began exploring the state's mountains, rivers, and coastal waters. He was particularly enthralled with Southern California's coastal areas, where he found "an amazing spectacle in the abundance of fishes, shellfish and crustaceans." Holder also explored the Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California. Santa Catalina was the easiest to visit, and Holder went there for the first time in 1886. Here, he found a real "fisherman's paradise."

In the very small community of Avalon, Holder found tuna bones in an Indian mound on the beach. Catalina had been occupied intermittently by various American Indian groups, including the Gabrieleño in prehistoric times. Europeans had first visited the island in 1542 and sporadically thereafter. By the mid-nineteenth century, the island was largely deserted. George Shatto, a real estate speculator, purchased the island, established a very small community that would become Avalon, and began building a resort. He built Avalon's pier, making it possible for passenger ships to dock, and started construction on a hotel on the site of the Indian mound that Holder had explored on his first visit to the island. The hotel was initially a modest place for visitors to spend the night, but during the following decade it was upgraded to luxury status.

Early on, the Hotel Metropole was the only commercial hotel in Avalon, and visiting fishermen congregated there. Holder convinced some to go after tuna with rods and reels. As it turned out, it was usually the fish who caught the rods and reels, frequently pulling them overboard. Fishing for tuna this way was dangerous, and the Metropole garnered the nickname "Tuna Hospital" because of all the injured and bandaged fishermen who stayed there during tuna season.

A decade after Holder had first tried to catch a tuna, he reported in Cosmopolitan magazine that no one had yet succeeded. It was the fish that had "harvested the rods, reels, and lines." The problem was that the equipment of the time just wasn't strong enough to withstand the tremendous pulling power of large tuna. When Holder finally caught a 183-pound tuna in 1898, he immediately informed the press, and newspapers heralded this astounding feat the following day, reporting that Holder's tuna had been landed after a struggle lasting three hours and forty-five minutes. The Pasadena Daily News, Holder's hometown paper, proclaimed that in landing the mighty fish, "the Professor eclipsed all previous achievements in the line of angling."

Despite this nice story, perhaps written by Holder himself, he was not the first to catch a large tuna with a rod and reel. That honor went to Colonel Clinton P. Morehouse, also of Pasadena, who did so during the summer of 1896. During the 1897 season, fourteen more large tuna were caught by other anglers. But it was Holder's catch the following year that proved to be the turning point, for shortly thereafter Holder called a meeting of the sportfishermen then in Avalon. When the group convened, at the Metropole, they inaugurated the Tuna Club. As Holder later wrote, "Among the observers were reporters and correspondents, and I later saw myself pictured playing this leaping tuna forty feet at least in air. Another account in a magazine showed me calmly swimming and playing the tuna, the caption suggesting that I rather preferred that method. The Associated Press telegraphed the story to England, and the members of the peaceful Sea Anglers' Association in London received the account the next morning in the papers, and doubtless marveled at the big things in America." Holder later explained his reasons for founding the Tuna Club:

The splendid fishes of the region, yellowtail, white sea bass and others, were being slaughtered by the ton. I had seen boats go out with five or six hand lines rigged out astern, to return with forty or more fish, none less than fifteen pounds, and running up to twenty-five, each with the game qualities of a forty-pound salmon. It was a depressing sight, as most of these fishes were fed to the sea lions and sharks. How to stop it was the question, and I conceived the idea of an appeal to the innate sense of fair play that is found among nearly all anglers.

At the club's subsequent meeting on August 22, 1898, Holder wanted five pounds added to the weight of his trophy catch to compensate for blood and fluids lost by the tuna as it fought on the line, and that its weight should therefore be listed as 188 pounds. The Los Angeles Daily Times (again with Holder as the likely source) dutifully passed on this claim as well. The feats of these tuna fishermen—and occasionally women—were news at the turn of the twentieth century, and an unlikely fish that few Americans had ever heard of began to be bandied about in newspapers—often with front-page coverage—and magazines across America, Canada, and Great Britain. These reports were often abetted by Holder and other club members, who were not opposed to gaining a little visibility for themselves, but their main interest was to promote their sportsmanlike approach to saltwater fishing with rods and reels in hopes of stopping the massive slaughter of fish along the coast of Southern California by sportfishermen who caught thousands of fish with hand lines, only to toss the tuna overboard. This is not to say that the sportsfishermen did much more with their tuna when caught, for there's little evidence during the early years that club members actually ate the fish—they usually just had their photo taken with the largest fish they caught, or they stuffed it and shipped it home.


Excerpted from American Tuna by Andrew F. Smith. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Part I. The Rise
1. Angling for a Big Fish
2. Looks Like Chicken
3. Enemy Aliens
4. This Delicious Fish
5. Caucasians Who Have Tasted and Liked This Speciality

Part II. The Fall
6. Foreign Tuna
7. Tuna Wars
8. Porpoise Fishing
9. Parts Per Million

Appendix: Historical Tuna Recipes

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

In language as clear as cold water, Mr. Smith chronicles the [industry]. . . . Tuna is the story of America told another way."—Wall Street Journal

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