Canned Tuna History
In the late 1800’s and at the turn of the
century, the primary fish that people bought and ate from a can
was the sardine. One of the major areas for the sardine fishery
was Southern California, particularly San Diego. In 1903 due to
a combination of over-fishing and poor ocean conditions, the catch
of sardines was exceptionally poor. One canner, Albert P. Halfhil,
who canned sardines from San Pedro Bay, saw that he was going
to have lots of empty sardine tins, so he figured out a way to
fill them. He experimented by packing the empty sardine cans with
locally caught albacore tuna. Albacore are a highly migratory
species that travel up the West Coast every year. They were readily
available, and provided a fish to fill the empty sardine tins.
In his first year Halfhil sold 700 cases, and by 1914 he was producing
400,000 cases per year.
soared with the onset of the First World War. Canned tuna provided
a high in protein portable and convenient food for soldiers in
the field. This demand caused the tuna fleet to expand from San
Diego and explore further out into the Pacific. The demand outpaced
the supply of albacore, resulting in boats fishing for other species
of tuna. By the 1920’s canners were also canning skipjack,
bluefin, and yellowfin. Boats fished further offshore and further
north. By 1954 the world’s largest tuna producer and consumer
was the United States.
The boats used over the years have changed as well. Originally,
boats made one day trips out to fish for albacore and typically
returned home in the evening. This was due to the fact that they
caught fish and could not hold them for long periods without ice.
Modern boats have a variety of freezing systems for their tuna
and can stay out for over a month at a time. This ability greatly
increased the range of the fleet, allowing them to travel several
hundred miles offshore in search of tuna. In the 1970’s
boats were traveling across the central Pacific, but today most
of the West Coast fleet fishes within 600 miles of the coast.
Methodology of the fishery has changed over the years as well.
The fish are caught with both nets and hooks. Today 62% of tuna
are caught using a seine net which encircles the tuna school and
closes up by pulling a rope that goes through rings on the bottom
of the net. 14% of tuna are caught using long lines with multiple
hooks that are baited and set out by the boat. The boat will set
additional lines, then return to check the earlier set lines.
Other methods include catching fish with hand held poles or by
trolling jigs through the water.
The size and packaging of tuna cans has changed over the years.
The industry has responded to increased costs of production primarily
by reducing can size and experimenting with other packaging such
as pouches. Pouches cost far less to produce than metal tins,
and from a marketing standpoint they were able to reach additional
customers. The typical size tuna can was seven ounces, was then
reduced to six, and has recently been reduced by many major packers
to five ounces of tuna per can. The industry has recently been
producing flavored tuna and tuna seasoned with a variety of things
to try to increase their market. While some of these are gaining
in popularity, they don’t even come close to standard canned