The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1978, Volume 24, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor

Hunters, Seamen, and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego.
By Michael K. Orbach. University of California Press, 1977. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 304 pages. $12.75
Reviewed by E. A. Keen, Professor of Geography and Associate Director, Center for Marine Studies, San Diego State University.

American ethnographers in recent years have expanded their areas of research from exotic and traditional cultures to aspects of our own culture or to sub-cultures therein. In this case, Mike Orbach has applied the observational skills of the trained ethnographer to a group that is indeed close to San Diegans, the tuna purse seine fishermen. More specifically, the focus is on the fishermen in all their work and personal relationships while on 40 to 80 day trips at sea to harvest yellowfin and skipjack tuna.

The book is based on Orbach’s doctoral thesis in anthropology at UC, San Diego. Field research for it is thorough. In its execution, the author lived for two years with his wife in “Tunaville,” the Portugese community of San Diego. The author made two voyages as a deck crewman on tuna seiners during this period, one on which the crew was drawn primarily from the Portugese community, the other more from the Italian community. Thus the two ethnic groups that dominate the fishery are sampled at sea. Appropriate methodological and cognate works are cited but field notes from these two years overwhelmingly dominate as a source of material.

The author combines disciplined observational skills with not inconsiderable writing and organizational skills to provide a detailed account of life and work aboard tuna purse seiners. The processes of locating fish, of setting and hauling nets, of recruiting crews, and of training new recruits to the fishery are described in clear and sometimes minute detail. Overlying treatment of these processes is a strong concern for inter-personal relationships. These relationships fascinated the author; he in turn presents them to the reader with insightful inspiration growing out of that fascination. He concludes with an equally insightful chapter on relationships between fishermen and the land-based community including the special familial relationships that must develop when father is completely removed from the home scene for long periods each year.

The author opens by stating that, “This book is about the men who sail the high-seas tuna fleet out of San Diego . . .” His success in documenting their life and work patterns approaches completeness. The reader seeking insights into the problems of managing tuna resources in the Eastern Tropical Pacific or into the international conflicts associated with this management, however, will find little of direct value. While the author hews closely to his stated theme, the men in the fishery, he does of necessity touch upon the wider milieu that includes the problems of managing and allocating a scarce resource in an international, common property, framework. Insights into these problems are gained far more rapidly by reading than through field work. Had the author done more reading in the field of fisheries management, especially the literature on economic aspects of it, errors of interpretation such as that “. . . the system of resource exploitation works quite well. . .” and “. . . provides an adequate supply of tuna to the public at a reasonable cost. . .” would have been avoided (pp. 226). The system has not worked as well as it could since an annual quota was instituted in the mid-1960’s as the prime means to prevent over-exploitation. The effects that an annual quota used alone has on fishery resource exploitation is well documented in the literature on fisheries management.

Errors of fact such as that the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission was formed in the 1960’s (p. 5)—it dates from 1949—or that skipjack rarely average over 40 pounds while the yellowfin often average over 100 pounds (p.98) also might have been avoided. (Skipjack landed by the San Diego fleet average from four to seven pounds, yellowfin on the order of 25 to 30 pounds.) A few typographical errors that change words such as “if” for “is” (line 5, p. 204), “is” for “in” (line 6, p. 246), and “must” for “most” (line 6, p. 274) also distract the reader. However, these are but minor faults in aspects peripheral to the main theme. Those working to develop new systems for managing and allocating the resource would profit from a reading of this book. The human element almost certainly will be better reflected in new arrangements if they do. It also has the advantage of being thoroughly readable and free of jargon. The general reader interested in fisheries or in life at sea will find it rewarding as well.