A Brief Historical Overview
California's commercial fishing industry has a colorful history, enriched by immigrants from European and Asian nations who settled and established communities up and down the state's coastline. The enterprise of these fishermen and the commercial fishing industry they developed figured importantly in the growth of local economies from Crescent City in northern California to San Diego in the south.
Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, European fishermen brought their methods from the old world and adapted them to California waters. The different nationalities gravitated to different parts of the Golden State, drawn by heritage, fishing specialty, and fish. Portuguese settled in San Diego to catch tuna with hook and line. Purse seine fishermen from Italy and Yugoslavia settled the San Pedro area to fish sardines and squid. Santa Barbara attracted Italians, many from Genoa, who trapped lobster and fished with gillnets and hook and line. Sicilian fishermen introduced the lampara net to Monterey. The San Francisco area fleet also hailed from Sicily, crabbers and a few trollers who operated north to Bodega Bay and south to Half Moon Bay. Finns and Norwegians settled in Fort Bragg. Scandanavian fishermen also settled in Eureka and later, when the harbor was built, in Crescent City.
Asians fished California waters beginning in the mid-1800's. California's squid fishery began in 1863 in Monterey Bay, initiated by Chinese fishermen who rowed the bay at night in sampans. Joined by the Japanese, these fishermen and entrepreneurs dried and exported their catch until the mid-1930's. Sicilians and Yugoslavs set round-haul nets for sardines, as that fishery blossomed after World War I. The Pacific sardine fishery reached its peak in 1936, when the catch weighed in at more than 700,000 tons. Sardines once supported the largest fishery in north America, employing thousands of workers in canneries from San Francisco to San Diego. Sardines vanished along the Pacific coast beginning in the mid-1940's, but now, in this warm-water cycle, are returning to abundance. Sardines are currently harvested under a quota set by the Department of Fish and Game, determined by the size of the biomass.
Records of commercial landings of northern anchovy date from 1916, Pacific herring from 1915, and Pacific mackerel from the 1930's. The highest recorded commercial landing of California halibut was nearly five million pounds in 1919; the average annual catch today is approximately one million pounds. A significant swordfish catch first occurred in 1927. In the early days of the fishery, swordfish were caught by hand-thrown harpoon and the local supply fluctuated wildly. Since the late 1970's, the primary method of catch has been short-length, large-mesh drift gillnets, which have provided a consistent supply, with landings averaging more than 2.6 million pounds per year.
Dungeness crab fishermen first began harvesting crab in 1848; California's oyster fishery got its start in the 1850's when settlers from the east coast arrived for the Gold Rush. These two early fisheries in San Francisco Bay were joined by the commercial industry for Bay shrimp in the early 1860's. Abalone can also be added to this list as one of California's oldest commercial operations.
The failure of historic sardine runs off the southern California coast in 1903 hastened development of California's tuna fishery. In 1907, an experimental pack of 700 cases of albacore led to the development of the U.S. tuna canning industry. The industry expanded quickly: demand exceeded supply. Soon bluefin and yellowfin tuna, as well as the smaller skipjack, were canned as "light meat" tuna became the norm and white-meated albacore, the specialty. California's tuna canning industry recovered from a post-World War II slump to become one of the largest and most profitable in the world. By the early 1980's, California's industry faced rising labor costs, more stringent regulations, and increased competition from abroad. By the mid-1980's, the industry moved processing facilities offshore, sharply reducing California's tuna landings.
Barracuda, a big fishery in the 1950's, lost its appeal as shark gained favor at market. Largely ignored until the early 1970's, sea urchins became one of California's most valuable coastal fisheries in the 1990's, bringing in $20 million or more in annual revenues to California fishermen, and representing $80 million in export trade. In 1996 market squid became California's most valuable fishery: landings exceeded 177 million pounds, valued at $33.3 million dockside. Many fisheries have developed to fill demand from Pacific Rim countries. No longer dominated by a single species, California's fishing industry harvests an amazing variety of local fish and shellfish, with a collective value of more than $800 million per year.