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The birth and death of commercial fishing in LA Harbor

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As I walked into the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro—which seemed like a place I needed to see if I wanted to understand the harbor-side community—the  volunteer at the desk asked if I’d been there before. “Once,” I said, “a long time ago.”

“Did you ever take the ferry?” he asked.

That catapulted me back decades, and it explained immediately what seemed so familiar about the building.

The San Pedro Ferry Building, which did service from 1941-1963 as the ferry's western side, and now houses the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

I remember going on the ferry when I was a kid—maybe around 1958 or 1960. I don’t remember much about it, other than my dad driving the car aboard a boat, the boat crossing a narrow channel, and my dad driving the car off the boat.

The ferry closed in 1963. The single-span suspension Vincent Thomas Bridge opened, which meant you could drive more quickly from San Pedro to Terminal Island than you could take the boat. But for 22 years, the ferry was the primary connection between San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles.

Today, it’s a testament to more than a century of harbor history. In touring the exhibits, I learned quite a few things I hadn’t known before about the port.

A new form of fishing had been invented here, based on a new technology called the “purse-seine net.” The museum credits the net’s invention to the harbor’s multi-cultural work force—the Japanese, Balkan, Scandinavian, and other fishermen who worked the boats, but it seems that for quite some time, Croatian-Americans made the greatest use of it.

A purse-seine net is a long, wide net that a fishing boat drops into the water, a dinghy mooring one end of it while the fishing boat drags the rest into a big circle. Once the circle is complete, the fisherman pull a cable that gathers the bottom of the net, effectively “pursing” it. Then a winch aboard the fishing vessel lifts the net which captures all the fish in the area around it.

With purse-seine nets, each fishing boat could quickly catch far more fish than it could with smaller nets. It dramatically increased the yield.

And yield was what was needed in the port, the museum exhibits explained, because at about the same time early in the 20th Century, fish processors in Terminal Island figured out how to can sardines, albacore and tuna. Canning, of course, meant fish could be preserved and then shipped over great distances, dramatically enlarging the market from those in the immediate vicinity to those anywhere in the country, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

Great canneries grew in the port—among them, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist (once known as the French Sardine Company). Then, in the 1980s, the great Terminal Island canneries faltered and finally died. The museum attributes the collapse to foreign competition and government regulation. There’s no doubt canning tuna in countries where workers were paid pennies a day was cheaper than doing it in the U.S.

Oddly, the exhibits didn’t say a word about over-fishing, the propensity of technology to make possible greater and greater yields and at the same time to deplete the fish populations closest to the California shore. That made the fishing fleet go further and further from San Pedro to find the fish, and brought about its own set of problems in international relations.

There is still some commercial fishing based in San Pedro, but it’s a tiny fraction of what it was. Others have taken the technology invented here and beaten San Pedro at its own game.

Original fresnel from the Angel's Gate lighthouse on the breakwater to Los Angeles Harbor, on display at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Barb Tenney February 6, 2012, 8:21 pm

    Paul – Someday I’ll tell you a story about purse seining in Alaska and netting two sharks aboard the ReJoyce. Unbelievable. We will need beer. Cheers! ~ Barb

  • Andy Mischkin January 27, 2016, 7:57 am

    In 1981 I took a school course in Commercial Fishing in San Pedro, CA. As far as I can remember our teacher’s name was Tony, a nice older gentleman who also put me on a Korean fishing boat named “The Rose of Sharon”. His saying was: boattime is schooltime! I wish I could get some information about this school or whereabouts of Tony! Grat time it was! Sad to say – I lost my school diploma of that course.

    • Mitch Simpson October 5, 2016, 10:40 pm

      Andy, I also took the class from Tony. He had a frozen middle finger from an accident on board when he was a fisherman. Great guy. I was lucky enough to get a job on the El Conquistador. I would love to talk to you about that time as I’m doing some research and could really use your memory. Hope to hear from you, Mitch

  • Kathryn Greenwood May 29, 2016, 4:01 pm

    My father was a commercial fisherman in San Pedro and I used to go down to the boat with him every time his boat came in. His name was Lester Geile, I don’t remember the name of his boat but I do have a picture of the Sea Rose. My father died 8 years ago and his wife kept me from seeing or talking to him so I would like to know if anyone knew him and could tell me more about him. I haven’t been able to speak to him since he married Dorothy in the 1970’s. I feel terrible about all the time I missed with him and keep feeling I could have done something. I believe he worked on a boat that was owned by the Alefetich’s. It would be nice to hear from someone who knew him.
    Kathryn (Kathy)

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