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The news spread quickly across Point Loma last week. On Sunday, the Cape Elizabeth, a 225-foot tuna fishing boat captained by one of the neighborhood’s own, caught fire and sank in western Pacific waters north of American Samoa.
Julio Guidi and his 21 crewmembers were rescued by a passing boat. By Tuesday evening, Guidi was on his way home.
The boat once belonged to a local Portuguese family. It was named Tradition then, and the news that it had sunk tugged on a heartstring that runs through Point Loma’s former fishing community, and that is lately wearing thinner with each pluck. Few locally owned fishing boats remain, and many of the local pioneers of the industry’s mid-century heyday have started dying at a steadier pace.
Tuna fishing is largely considered a closed chapter in San Diego’s history, but on Point Loma, its legacy lives on. Members of some local families still travel to serve as captains on boats in the western Pacific and off the Central American coasts. A few still own boats that now unload their catches there.
The industry’s legacy is on display in the local Portuguese social hall, in homes where pictures of old fishing boats adorn mantles, and in the speed with which many families there learned of the downed boat last week, even though most stopped fishing more than two decades ago.
“They still listen and talk about it,” said Kenny Alameda, one of San Diego’s last remaining tuna fishing boat owners. “We all do.”
Once one of the city’s most prominent industries, tuna fishing in the mid-1980s fell victim to shuttering local canneries, cheap foreign labor and stricter environmental regulations. Earlier this year, the Port of San Diego dedicated a statue to tuna workers, so that San Diego would not forget the important role the industry played in the growing city’s economy.
But its legacy needs no reminder among San Diego’s Portuguese. It still sustains the city’s roughly 17,000 Portuguese residents, most of whom live in Point Loma.
At the local industry’s peak, more than 160 Portuguese-owned fishing boats operated out of San Diego. Today, just seven families own boats that fish in foreign waters, and a handful of Point Loma’s residents are captains who leave their families for months out of the year to make a living thousands of miles away, in the only profession they know.
Welcome to Tunaville
Most of San Diego’s Portuguese are the descendants of immigrants from the Madeira and Azorean Islands off Portugal’s coast who first settled in New England, Rhode Island, and New Jersey and made their way west.
In San Diego, they started as skiff fishermen who used single poles to catch tuna and albacore next to Italian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants. They delivered their catches to the canneries that sprung up along the waterfront where many of their wives cleaned and processed the fish.
They called their neighborhood Tunaville. They built a community around the S.E.S. Hall and diminutive Catholic chapel they built near Shelter Island in the 1920s.
“Every fisherman donated 25 cents of their pay for each ton of fish to pay for the hall, and 25 cents for the chapel,” said Therese Garces, president of the Portuguese Historical Center, which houses photos and archives out of a converted cottage across the street from the chapel. “That was a lot of money,” she said.
The community raised money to celebrate the annual Feast of the Holy Spirit, which is celebrating its 100th San Diego anniversary this year. They built St. Agnes Catholic Church, which is still the center of Portuguese religious life in San Diego.
Over the decades, the festivals became more elaborate as the Portuguese grew more prosperous as fishermen. They developed techniques that used nets to encircle schools of fish and invested in more sophisticated boats with larger haul capacities.
Done In By Dolphin-Safe Tuna
In the 1970s, environmentalists targeted San Diego’s fishermen, criticizing the new techniques for the impact they had on local dolphin populations. Off California’s coast, tuna swim underneath schools of dolphins. The presence of dolphins meant the tuna were nearby, and dolphins were often caught in the fishermen’s nets.
Environmental activists lobbied hard, and when Heinz announced it would only buy dolphin-safe tuna, other companies followed suit. San Diego’s fishermen tried to reform, but dolphin deaths, they said, were never completely avoidable.
In the late 70s and early 80s, buffeted by the environmental criticism and competition from foreign fish and cheap labor, San Diego’s Portuguese started moving their boats away to the western Pacific, where dolphins and tuna don’t swim together. They unloaded their catches in Samoa or on the coast of South America. Some sold their boats altogether. Canneries moved to where the boats and cheap labor were. Fishermen here lost their jobs.
Among the Portuguese who live in Point Loma, resentment still lingers more than 20 years later over the activists whose public campaigns they say portrayed fishermen as villains. Their children were taunted at school when they popped open cans of tuna and were asked, “how much dolphin is in there?”
“None! There was none in there!” said Leo Correia, who became a fisherman when he was 18, rising to captain and eventually the owner of a boat, which he sold in 1990. “We didn’t want to kill them, and the canneries wouldn’t buy dolphins anyway.”
“A lot of them blame the environmentalists for putting them out of a job,” Alameda said. The Portuguese men who had served as captains and navigators flew overseas each year to continue working on boats. The men who pulled in nets and refrigerated the fish lost out and took jobs in the service industry, construction, or on boats for local marine research institutions.
Despite their heavy presence in Point Loma, few Portuguese opened businesses there. Today, there are only about four Portuguese-owned restaurants in San Diego and a handful of other small businesses.
The seven families who own boats overseas have had to adjust to the continually changing industry. In September, Chicken of the Sea closed its cannery in Samoa, leaving just StarKist’s. It may make operations even more expensive than they already are if the owners have to unload their catches on islands where canneries can pay less, Alameda said.
The families who still own the boats are among the largest benefactors to the community’s social events. “The boats are where the money is,” Garces said. She said the Portuguese community may eventually have to come to terms with a decrease in the owners’ contributions.
But the S.E.S. Hall, she said, is bringing in the community’s children, hoping they’ll keep Portuguese traditions going.
Looking out over San Diego bay from his office on Harbor Island, Alameda said the Portuguese community, though displaced from the industry that gave it life here, has remained tight knit because of its shared history.
Alameda is president of a company that sells oil, “but I still say I’m in the tuna business, because I sell to tuna boats. We’re all still connected to it, and I hope it stays that way.”
Please contact Adrian Florido directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.