The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1999, Volume 45, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

by Mark Schoell

Images from to the Article

As recently as 1980, San Diego was home to the world’s largest and most successful tuna fishing fleet. In that year 101 tuna boats were based in the city.1 Several times each year, San Diego’s Portuguese and Italian tuna fishermen made the two to three month round trip to the waters of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) where yellowfin tuna could be found in great numbers. While the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972 is often cited as the primary cause of the fleet’s decline, a closer look at the events which unfolded tell a different story.

The tuna fishermen used enormous nets — often a mile long and four hundred feet deep — called purse seines. Unfortunately, the air-breathing dolphins which commonly swim with the yellowfin in the ETP often became tangled in these nets and drowned. Despite efforts by the fishermen to develop new techniques, such as “backing down” where the net was quite literally pulled out from under the dolphins, and new equipment, such as smaller mesh netting known as the Medina Panel, the rate of dolphin mortality remained high. This posed a tremendous problem for the industry. Dolphins were the best indicator of the presence of tuna in the open ocean but public anger was mounting at the slaughter of these “cute” and intelligent animals.2

Throughout the 1970s, the biggest foe of San Diego’s tuna fleet was America’s nascent environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, an indictment of the American pesticide industry in general and the insecticide DDT in particular, spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and is considered by many to have been the catalyst of the country’s newfound ecological awareness.3 A wide array of organizations dedicated to protecting the earth and its inhabitants appeared on the scene during this period. These groups launched letter writing campaigns and other forms of organized protest that were instrumental in the creation and passage of numerous environmental protection bills such as the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Toxic Substance Control Act (1976) and the Pesticide Control Act (1972).

After a number of years of various forms of environmental activism, it became increasingly clear to many of these groups that the most effective route toward achieving their goals was through the courts rather than through grass-roots activities. Many of the more mainstream environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace began to employ a growing number of “Potomac conservationists,” career professionals whose only contact with the environment they sought to protect was through courtrooms, congressional hearings and lobbying efforts.4

It can be fairly said that San Diego’s tuna industry was not singled out by the environmentalists but was just one of a host of industries which experienced difficult economic times as a result of America’s burgeoning environmental awareness. When Greenpeace turned its attention to combating whaling in 1975, “Save the Whales” became a well-known catch phrase until the International Whaling Commission voted in 1982 to end all commercial whaling. Similarly, there was a steep downturn in the demand for fur when the European Economic Community voted to ban the import of seal skins in response to the spotlight environmental organizations focused on the plight of baby harp seals who were clubbed to death for their snowy white pelts.5

In 1972, the widespread public outcry against the killing of dolphins, whales and seals led Congress to pass the MMPA. This bill placed an indefinite moratorium on the “taking” of all marine mammals. “Taking” was subsequently defined by the courts as including not only killing but also harassment of dolphins and other marine mammals. Exceptions to the bill were granted for scientific research, animals to be put on public display, Alaskan natives and those engaged in commercial fishing.6

This last exemption was created specifically with the tuna industry in mind, but before the fishermen could make use of this exemption they had to receive a permit from the federal government. These permits could not be issued until the government determined the current population of the species to be taken as well as the optimal sustainable population (OSP) of the species. Once these levels had been determined, regulations would be drawn up governing the taking of these animals. These regulations were designed to bring the marine mammal mortality rate associated with tuna fishing to “levels approaching zero,” a phrase that would be the subject of much contention in the coming years.7

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a branch of the Commerce Department, was given responsibility for administering the MMPA. On October 21, 1972, in the absence of the required data on the levels of porpoise stocks, the NMFS gave the tuna industry a two-year waiver of the restrictions against taking marine mammals. Ostensibly, this would allow the tuna industry time to develop methods to reduce the high levels of dolphin mortality and thus come into compliance with the new law.8

The following year, 1973, the estimated number of dolphins killed as a result of purse seining activities was 175,000. In 1974, this number was cut almost in half to 98,700. The American Tunaboat Association (ATA) pointed to this as proof that the fishermen could reduce the level of dolphin mortality associated with purse seining without government intervention. In 1975, however, the number of porpoise killed by the fleet jumped dramatically to 166,600.9 August Felando, General Manager of the ATA, was quick to point out that 1975 had been a much busier year for tuna fishermen than 1974 and that the number of porpoise killed per set and per ton of tuna caught had actually decreased. Still, to environmental groups the increase was evidence that as soon as the heat was taken off the tuna fishermen they would revert to their old dolphin killing ways.

In October of 1974, the NMFS, still without any reliable data on the size of porpoise populations, issued the tuna industry another waiver to kill dolphins, this time extending through the end of 1975. At this point the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) filed suit to force the government to enforce the MMPA against what they saw as the continued unabated slaughter of porpoises by the tuna industry. The EDF was one of the first groups to discover that lawsuits and injunctions or even just the threat of them were often more effective than petitions and letter writing campaigns.10

The landmark decision of Committee for Humane Legislation v. Richardson was handed down in May of 1976. In it, Judge Charles R. Richey stated his opinion that:

Steps which ensure the protection and conservation of our natural environment must, almost inevitably, impose temporary hardships on those commercial interests which have long benefitted by exploiting that environment. The people of this country, speaking through their Congress, declared that porpoises and other marine mammals must be protected from the harmful and possible irreversible effects of man’s activities.11


Judge Richey ruled that the waiver to kill an unspecified number of dolphins granted to the tuna industry amounted to a permit and ordered an immediate halt to all fishing on porpoise. In his opinion, the MMPA required that these permits specify the number of protected mammals to be killed. Before issuing such permits, the judge required that the Secretary of Commerce publish his department’s findings on the existing population levels of dolphins and the effect that the killings being permitted would have on the OSP of the species. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Richey’s decision with the minor modification that the ban on setting nets on dolphins would go into effect on January 1, 1977. This delay was designed to give the government time to complete its research on dolphin stocks and establish a system of annual quotas on the number of porpoise that could be killed by the tuna fleet while purse seining.12

Emotions ran high on both sides of the issue. Friends of Animals ran an advertisement asking “Would You Kill Flipper for a Tuna Sandwich?” in national magazines. Letter writing campaigns were organized. Throughout 1976 letters poured into the ATA offices in San Diego. A second grader from Confluence, Pennsylvania wrote to the ATA asking them to “please quit killing the dolphins because I want them here when I grow up.”13 From students at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, California came “How would you like to get drowned and then get cut up and sold for tuna when you’re not even any kind of tuna?” and, probably more effectively, “I had my mom stop buying tuna.”14

John Laurence, of Glen Head, New York, who described himself as “sick and tired of American industry’s obsession with making money at the expense of the only planet we have,” wrote, “The fact that your operations have been in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act does not seem to have helped you to a better way to fish. I seriously question whether you ever intended to work within the law.”15 The Audubon Society may have set a new standard for hyperbole when it wrote, “In the name of humanity and all that is decent in human nature, the time is long overdue when this brutal slaughter must be stopped completely.”16

In addition to such angry letters, the ATA also received numerous helpful suggestions from members of the public who had the solution to the problem of getting the dolphins out of the net alive and would, for a small fee, share that solution with members of the tuna industry. One inventor proposed a mechanical “Pied Porpoi” which “will be so real looking and acting that it will fool all that see or hear its calling voice that will lead the porpoise out of the nets.”17

Another idea was dubbed the “Aqua Gate.” “As the catch is being rounded up in the net to be loaded aboard the ship the tuna and porpoise are guided into a main shute [sic] and as the fish and porpoise are guided into a single file line they are deployed as the crew wishes.”18 Surely, the top brass at the ATA were breathless with anticipation waiting to see a device which would cause several thousand yellowfin tuna, as well as perhaps fifty to one hundred dolphins, to line up like so many cattle and wait to be sorted into the refrigerated holds on board the ship or back out to sea.

The environmentalists’ campaign to portray the tuna fishermen as villains was so successful that the ATA felt compelled to spend $2,500/month to retain The Tom Gable Company, a public relations firm, to help improve its image.19 Gable’s intent was to stress to legislators and members of the public

“the heritage and accomplishments of the American Tuna Fisherman, his achievements in conservation and porpoise rescue, the economic impact of the tuna industry and benefits of tuna as a low-cost, high-protein food.”20

Gable organized elementary school education programs which included tours aboard tuna vessels in San Diego harbor. He sent pro-tuna industry information to the editorial directors of nationally prominent newspapers, local news stations and area legislators. He organized the printing of 10,000 “Facts about the Porpoise and Tuna Fishing” brochures which were made available to the public on displays at local seafood restaurants. The displays urged people to “Read the Facts” and “Write your Representatives” and included pre-printed postcards addressed to California’s senators Alan Cranston and S.I. Hayakawa:

I believe the American tuna fisherman has done an excellent job in improving porpoise rescue. Give him a chance to keep improving. Don’t let a bad law shut down the fleet, throw 30,000 people out of work and force us to depend on tuna caught by foreign fleets, which do nothing to help the porpoise.21

These efforts to tell the fishermen’s side of the story met with little success, however, in the face public commentary by such notables as Walter Cronkite in support of the environmentalists. On November 17, 1975, Cronkite addressed the issue on the CBS Radio Network. He spoke of the dolphins’ playfulness, intelligence and other human qualities. He made reference to stories of dolphins saving swimmers from drowning. “Tuna fishermen, spotting a group of dolphins, surround them with nets. If tuna are found beneath, the nets are pulled tight. The dolphins, being air-breathing mammals, when caught in the net usually drown.”22

After Judge Richey’s ruling in May, the NMFS quickly set a porpoise kill quota of 78,000 for 1976.23 With this quota, Morton Miller, head of the NMFS’s economic and marketing research division, reported that the average tuna seiner in 1976 could expect to incur a loss of about $133,000.24 The 78,000 quota was reached in mid-October of 1976. Despite assurances given to the ATA by the NMFS that the quota would not be strictly enforced this first year, San Diego’s tuna fleet was forced to stop setting their nets on dolphins for the rest of the year. Although some boats attempted to finish out the year fishing using logs or seabirds as indicators of the presence of tuna, most simply returned to San Diego a month and a half earlier than usual.25 Despite this fact, the U.S. tuna fleet had a very good year in 1976, landing over 192,000 tons of yellowfin26 — an increase of over sixty percent from the previous year.27

In 1977, the quota was reduced to 59,050, but only after interminable legal maneuvering on both sides of the debate had delayed announcing the quota until late February. Originally, the government had set the quota for 1977 at 29,920. After several weeks of hearings, administrative law judge Frank Vanderheyden recommended a quota of 96,100 dolphins. The quota of 59,050 for 1977 represented a compromise of the two figures.28

The NMFS had issued a report indicating that this one species of porpoise, the eastern spinner, was numerically depleted. Thus, when the government’s compromise quota was announced it contained the proviso that no eastern spinners could be killed. This was an impractical ruling issued by men who had never been to sea. Eastern spinner dolphins often swam with other types of porpoise and from the surface it was nearly impossible to discern one from another. Since the ruling stated that a fisherman who knowingly or unknowingly set his nets on even one of these dolphins could be subject to a $45,000 fine and one year in prison, the effect of the ruling was to restrict all tuna fishing on dolphins.29

The government later amended its position and announced that only intentional violations of the prohibition against taking eastern spinner dolphins would be prosecuted, but the tuna fishermen had heard enough. As they did every year, San Diego’s tuna fleet had sailed on January 1st. This year, however, they had been prohibited from setting their nets around dolphins until a quota was announced. The result was catch levels in January and February that were down 40 percent from the same two months the previous year. This meant a 40 percent reduction in revenue for the fleet with no reduction in expenses.30 Partly to protest the complete ban on taking eastern spinners and partly due to the poor results they had experienced in the past few months while fishing for tuna without setting their nets on dolphins, the ATA announced that the tuna fleet was returning to San Diego and would begin the process of registering their boats with foreign nations rather than attempting to continue to fish under the new regulations.31

By the end of 1976, 21 boats out of the total U.S. fleet of 130 (16 percent) had transferred their registration to a foreign country.32 In January of 1977, nine more U.S. tuna boats applied for registration under foreign flags which would exempt them from U.S. regulations.33 As San Diego’s tuna fishermen began to make good on their threat to “go foreign” in the face of growing federal restrictions on their activities, they were met with stiff opposition from the government. U.S. ambassador-at-large Rozanne L. Ridgeway said that by re-registering their ships under a foreign flag of convenience the fishermen would not exempt themselves from the regulations imposed by the MMPA. At the same time, she admitted that enforcement would be difficult and it was for the Justice Department to decide whether or not charges would be filed in such a case.34

Rep. Robert Leggett (D-CA) insisted that he would, if necessary, introduce legislation prohibiting U.S. tuna fishermen from re-flagging their vessels. He cited the possibility of using a World War I era shipping act that empowers the Secretary of Commerce to block the transfer to foreign registry of U.S. vessels capable of serving as warships. He also reaffirmed the comments of NMFS director Robert Schoning that “the welfare of the porpoise is of prime concern.”35 These were the sort of comments that served to reinforce the feeling prevalent among San Diego’s tuna fishermen that their government cared more about the dolphins than about them. “They’re saying to me ‘You can die, you can starve. But we just want to make sure no porpoises are killed.'”36

The tuna boats stayed in San Diego throughout the months of March and April of 1977. Normally these would be the most productive months of the years. Instead, the boats remained tied to the docks. By early April, the fleet was 22,000 tons behind what they had caught at the same time the year before. With a market price of $665 per ton for yellowfin, that represented a loss of $15 million in just over a month. These losses were by no means limited to the fishermen and boat owners. Every dollar earned by San Diego’s tuna fleet was estimated to generate eight dollars of business elsewhere in the local economy. If so, the $15 million loss to the fleet represented a loss of $120 million to San Diego businesses dependent on the tuna industry such as canneries, shipbuilders, seafood wholesalers, marine electronics firms and many others.37

The first to feel the effects were employees of canning companies. In early April, Sun Harbor Industries laid off 150 cannery workers in San Diego and 242 in Puerto Rico due to a lack of fish to process.38 This was despite a massive upswing in the purchase of tuna by the canners from foreign countries. In the first three months of 1977, tuna imports from Japan totaled 21,000 tons, almost double the 11,000 ton figure for such imports in all of 1976.39 At $665 per ton for yellowfin, that extra 10,000 tons of imported tuna represented an additional $6,650,000 in the United States’ trade deficit with Japan in addition to the hundreds of lost jobs caused by the MMPA.

While the fleet was in port, the tuna industry sought to obtain eight million dollars from the government’s Economic Development Administration. It was stated that these funds would be used for research into better equipment and procedures for saving dolphins as well as to provide short-term loans to fishermen in financial trouble. The ATA said the money was needed to counteract the effects of the MMPA but in February of 1978 the government rejected the industry’s request saying that an NMFS analysis of the situation indicated that the problems of San Diego’s tuna industry were of a long-term nature and that these problems pre-dated the enactment of the MMPA. Effectively, the government was backing the environmentalists’ position that overexpansion, and not the MMPA, was the root cause of the tuna industry’s difficulties.40

The fishermen finally sailed in May of 1977 when the government agreed to ease some of its earlier restrictions. As the boats left San Diego, they flew their flags at half-mast to protest what they felt was the politically regulated death of their industry. The ATA explained that, given the current regulations, the variable costs involved in making a two or three month fishing trip, such as food and fuel, would exceed the revenue that might be obtained from the minimal catch the crew would bring home.41

This was not an idle complaint on the ATA’s part. A year earlier, in 1975, a study done by the NMFS Economic and Marketing Research Division concluded that a porpoise kill quota of 60,000 would result in the average vessel accruing a net loss amounting to $269,000 and that “the 80,000 quota level shows up fairly consistently in the analysis as the critical point below which the average vessel could not operate.”42 The NMFS’s own economist, Dennis King, testified before Congress that the new regulations would cost the average tuna vessel an estimated $120,000 per year.43

As it turned out, the U.S. tuna fleet had a good year in 1977. Despite spending a quarter of the year in port, the fleet landed 286,390 thousand pounds of yellowfin in 1977.44 While this was a reduction of 34 percent from the previous year,45 it still compares favorably with the 239,568 thousand pounds caught in 1975.46

Unfortunately, reliable numbers on how many dolphins were being killed each year and the size of the dolphin population were difficult to come by. In 1968, one NMFS biologist went on a single tuna fishing trip and counted the number of porpoise killed. From that data, he extrapolated by multiplying by the number of boats in the fleet and how many trips each boat made annually to arrive at a number of porpoise killed each year by the tuna fleet. He then presented his findings in a paper given at Stanford University and the information became the basis for all future assessments of dolphin mortality related to purse seining for tuna.47

In fact, as Table 1 shows, in the five years between 1968 and 1973, dolphin mortality decreased while the number of trips observed by federal officials increased:



Number of Trips Observed and Dolphins Killed per Ton of Tuna
Caught, 1968-197348

Year	# Trips Observed Dolphins Killed/Ton Tuna
1968 1 5.40
1971 6 3.96
1972 13 2.30
1973 20 1.35

A key point of contention in the MMPA was whether or not the dolphin populations were endangered or even diminishing. The NMFS attempted to approximate the dolphin population by estimating the known range of each species, surveying random sections of that range from the air and counting the number of schools and determining the average number of dolphins per school from the tuna boats. The resulting report, as could have been predicted, was so vague and generalized that it was of no use to either the environmentalists or the tuna industry and earned the Washington Star’s coveted Gobbledygook award. “There is no striking evidence that the stock is either increasing or decreasing. At present the stock probably is either stable or increasing or decreasing slightly.”49

In order not to exceed the porpoise mortality quota, some tunaboats tried fishing more on logs or other floating materials that yellowfin tuna are known to congregate beneath. Others spent more time fishing closer to shore for schools of younger, smaller yellowfin which were not yet strong enough swimmers to keep up with the dolphins. One of the largely unrecognized problems with regulations against fishing for tuna beneath schools of porpoise is that the fishermen then concentrate on the juvenile tuna and damage the reproductive future of the species. Prior to the implementation of these restrictions, tuna fishermen were inclined to avoid the juvenile fish because they were not favored by the canners. The smaller the tuna, the lower the yield per pound. The average weight of a yellowfin tuna increases from thirty pounds at two years to eighty pounds at three years and one hundred pounds at four years. Prior to 1973, the weight of the average fish caught was approximately 32 pounds. In 1973, the average weight per fish dropped to 27 pounds and in 1974 it fell again to sixteen pounds. These numbers demonstrate that in the years immediately following the passage of the MMPA the tuna fleet was catching an increasing number of younger tuna and thus jeopardizing the reproductive future of the fishery.50

The difficulties faced by the tuna industry were magnified by their inability to effectively join ranks in their battle against the environmentalists. Historically, there have been deep divisions between the fishermen, who want the highest possible price for their fish, and the canners, who try to maximize their profits by paying the lowest possible price for tuna. The fishermen, represented by the ATA, have always lobbied for import duties on fresh tuna. The canners, however, enjoy the option of purchasing low-cost, foreign-caught tuna. In 1976, sixty percent of the tuna canned in the U.S. was caught by foreign fleets, primarily those of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.51

The canners understood that any tariff or embargo on raw tuna caught by foreign boats would significantly raise the price they would have to pay for their product. They steadfastly opposed any regulations that would have taxed the import of tuna caught by foreign boats using the purse seine technique.

The ATA, of course, lobbied long and hard for just such tariffs on tuna caught by foreign fleets.

A second issue on which the tuna industry was divided concerned the possibility of American fishermen “going foreign.” This involved either transferring the registry of a tuna seiner to a foreign flag or the entire crew of a boat simply going to work on a foreign boat. It is no simple matter to find and capture huge schools of highly mobile fish in the open ocean. The experience of the American seiner crews, especially the captains, was much in demand in Latin American countries eager to develop their fisheries.

The ATA always kept the option going foreign as its hole card in the debate over the effect that regulatory measures such as the MMPA would have on the U.S. tuna industry. They believed that the restrictions on fishing for yellowfin in the ETP which were being placed on them would so reduce their profits that moving their boat to a foreign country with no such restrictions was the only way for them to continue to earn a comfortable living. San Diego’s tuna fishermen historically earned a very good wage for their labors but paid the price of being away from their homes and families eight or nine months each year. None saw the appeal of making the same sacrifice to catch less fish and earn less money.

The environmental coalition was aware of the potential for dividing the tuna lobby. In a 1976 publication, Friends of the Earth noted that “these [divisions] remain potentially exploitable vulnerabilities.”52 Some members of the tuna industry, including the canners and Seafarers Union, sided with the environmentalists in lobbying for legislation that would impose stiff penalties on American fishermen who violated U.S. laws while working on foreign flagged fishing vessels. The union’s interest is obvious. Foreign countries would often pay an American captain and a few key crew members a handsome salary and then fill out the rest of the crew with itinerant or native fishermen willing to work for a much lower salary than would a comparable American fisherman. The result was a loss of jobs for American tuna fishermen.

The idea of Americans dictating what the crews of foreign tuna seiners could and could not do was a sensitive issue that needed to be addressed in a diplomatic fashion. Bernard Fensterwald, attorney for the environmental groups Committee for Humane Legislation and Friends of Animals, pointed out that approval of the federal government was needed before the registration of a commercial ship could be transferred. In his opinion, the MMPA included language which could make any fisherman working aboard an expatriate tuna seiner subject to criminal prosecution if the flag country did not adhere to U.S. standards. At the same time, he acknowledged that there could be constitutional issues surrounding any law that prohibited a U.S. citizen from earning a living at his or her trade in a foreign country.53

Clearly, despite the environmentalists’ portrayal of the tuna industry as a single, powerful entity acting in concert against them, the canners and fishermen formed an uneasy coalition from the start. In a letter to August Felando in April of 1977, Tom Gable wrote: “Please find enclosed some brief thoughts on what I feel is needed to conduct a successful political campaign on behalf of the tuna industry. Many of the points have been covered previously at meetings among all the diverse elements [of the tuna industry]. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of meetings and very little action.”54 These sentiments were echoed a few months later by a partner in the law firm which had been hired to lobby Congress on the tuna industry’s behalf. “During the past several weeks I have felt that the coalition of boat owners, fishermen, canners and cannery workers was falling out of step and that it was becoming impossible to coordinate the four groups with any hope of success.”55

Not surprisingly, there was also dissent within the coalition of environmental forces as they sought to restrict the tuna industry’s ability to purse seine for tuna in the presence of dolphins. Certain elements of the forces working to save the dolphins, including the Committee for Humane Legislation (CHL) and the Audubon Society, felt that no concessions should be made that would cost dolphins their lives. As long as they had the government on their side, these groups favored focusing the coalition’s efforts on forcing the tuna industry to adhere to the strictest possible interpretation of the MMPA regardless of the consequences for the fishermen.56

In their opinion, the tuna industry had brought their difficulties upon themselves as a result of their gross over-capitalization in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They had been given two years to develop equipment and procedural alternatives that would significantly reduce dolphin mortality and had instead spent the time developing a massive public relations campaign. “We see no evidence of any serious attempt by the industry to move toward compliance with the regulations to which they agreed in 1972—we feel the industry is attempting to convince us that it is unable to do what it has not yet tried.”57

These “zero tolerance” groups were fond of pointing to a highly successful test cruise made by the tuna industry in which the seiner Elizabeth C.J. caught 550 tons of tuna while killing only ten dolphins. August Felando argued that it was unfair to use the Elizabeth C.J., with her top quality equipment and crew, as an example of what could be expected from an average tunaboat in a fleet that contained many older boats with less skilled crews. Nevertheless, many felt that the industry was pleading an inability to comply when their own research showed that this was not the case.58

Other factions of the environmental coalition, however, were less adamant that every dolphin possible must be saved regardless of the consequences for the livelihood of thousands of their fellow Americans. Members of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Monitor Coalition engaged in discussions with the tuna industry in the hope of reaching an agreement that would be acceptable to both the fishermen and those who sought to protect the dolphins. During these negotiations, these two groups incurred the wrath of some of their fellow environmentalists when they agreed to the government’s quota of 59,050 dolphin kills for 1977. In a newsletter to its members, the CHL accused the Monitor Coalition and EDF of “pressing for a mass kill of porpoise.”59

Of course, this sort of infighting was less of a concern for the environmentalists. By the late 1970s, members of Congress were proposing various forms of environmental legislation without being forced to do so by the environmental lobby and it became increasingly clear that the environmental forces were winning the “tuna war.” In fact, by the end of 1977, the government had so wholeheartedly involved itself with pushing forward the environmentalists’ agenda that the EDF’s board of directors was urging their attorney, William Butler, to remove himself from the case.60

The MMPA allowed San Diego’s tuna fishermen to continue using their purse seine nets to catch tuna in the presence of dolphins in the ETP but forced them to find ways to significantly reduce dolphin kill levels if they wanted to meet the quota and set their nets around dolphins the whole year. At this, they were tremendously successful. Table 2 shows the dramatic reduction in dolphin mortality achieved by the U.S. tuna fleet without a significant reduction in the amount of tuna caught:


TABLE 2Estimated Dolphin Kills and Pounds of Yellowfin Caught,

Year Estimated Dolphin Kills61 Pounds Yellowfin Caught62
1975 166,600 239,568,000
1976 118,000 384,474,000
1977 36,500 286,390,000
1978 21,500 267,908,000
1979 17,938 278,061,000
1980 15,305 231,617,000

In addition to the development of the back down technique and the widespread adoption of the Medina Panel, San Diego’s tuna fishermen invested a great deal of time and money developing other methods of reducing porpoise mortality. In 1975, the tuna industry established the Porpoise Rescue Foundation (PRF) whose objective was to fund the development of porpoise-saving techniques. Working with the tuna boat captains, the PRF developed and tested a number of ideas that succeeded in reducing the number of dolphins drowned during each set of the purse seine net.63

Some of these ideas were as simple as tying each cork float individually to the top of the purse seine net instead of running a single line through all the floats. This allowed the dolphins to more easily submerge the floats and escape the net.64 Other successful techniques included replacing the 2-inch mesh in the Medina Panel with finer 1 1/4-inch mesh and attaching speedboats to the corkline to prevent the sort of “disaster sets” that occurred when adverse wind conditions or water currents caused the net to collapse.65

Between 1976 and 1986, the dolphin kill quota was exceeded only three times resulting in a total loss of only two and a half months of fishing.66 During the years 1975-1980, the total annual catch of skipjack and yellowfin by the U.S. tuna fleet went from 239,568 thousand pounds to 231,617 thousand pounds — a decrease of only three percent.67 During that same period, the number of dolphins killed by the fleet was reduced by over ninety percent and remained at those low levels for years — averaging 16,072 in the twelve years between 1979 and 1990.68

Clearly, San Diego’s tuna fishermen adapted to the requirements placed on them by the MMPA. Why then do the three piers at the foot of Grape Street on San Diego’s embarcadero where the tuna fleet used to tie up today stand empty? Despite the cries of imminent doom by the ATA in the late 1970s, the restrictions imposed by the MMPA on the country’s fleet of purse seiners resulted in only a minimal drop in productivity. As late as 1980, San Diego’s fleet of large purse seiners operating in the ETP still numbered 101 — only one less than there had been in 1974.69

Throughout the 1980s, however, San Diego’s tuna fleet suffered a string of adversities. These included the El Nino current of 1982-83 which warmed the waters of the ETP to such an extent that the yellowfin and skipjack moved to the cooler, deeper waters of the Western Tropical Pacific (WTP). For reasons which are not entirely understood, tuna and dolphins do not swim together in the WTP. The total catch of yellowfin tuna in the ETP dropped from 200,415 tons in 1981 to 137,857 tons in 1982 to 103,873 tons in 1983 — a staggering decline of 52 percent in two years.70 The fishermen followed the tuna to the WTP and, after learning the new techniques and investing in the new equipment necessary to successfully fish in this area, enjoyed considerable success there.

A second problem for the fishermen was the movement of canneries overseas to take advantage of tax incentives and the significantly lower wages paid in places like Thailand, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. While the average hourly wage paid to entry level cannery workers in California in 1985 was $6.63, similarly skilled workers in Puerto Rico and American Samoa could expect to receive $3.87 and $2.94 per hour, respectively.71 Compounding the problem was the fact that, at a maximum of 12.5 percent, the U.S. tariff on imported tuna canned in water was lower than that of Canada, Thailand, Japan, and the European Union. The U.S. Congress refused to increase this duty and, as a result, canners found it less expensive to can the tuna overseas and export it to the United States than to produce the product domestically.72

Finally, the passage of the Magnuson Act in 1976, extending the United States’ territorial fishing limit from twelve to two hundred miles, led to increasingly vigilant enforcement of the 200-mile territorial limits already claimed by most of the South and Central American countries which bordered the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Foreigners wishing to fish for tuna within these boundaries were forced to purchase permits costing between $25,000 and $40,000 which were often good for as little as thirty days.73 Many captains ignored these demands and the result was a greatly increased number of seizures of U.S. tuna boats by foreign countries including a record fifteen by the Mexican Navy in 1980.74

Despite these difficulties, San Diego was still home to thirty large purse seiners as recently as January of 1990. The killing blow to San Diego’s tuna industry in came in April of that year when all three of the major American tuna canners, Star-Kist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea, capitulated to an environmentalist-led boycott of canned tuna and agreed to purchase only “dolphin-safe” tuna. Any tuna caught in purse seine nets in the presence of dolphins could not be labeled “dolphin-safe,” even if it were certified that no dolphins had been killed. Thus, despite the highly successful efforts of the tuna fishermen to reduce dolphin mortality in compliance with the MMPA, they could no longer fish in the ETP if they wanted to sell their tuna to the American market, which was by far the world’s largest. In the two years that followed this agreement, the number of boats in San Diego’s tuna fleet dropped from thirty to eight.75

Today, most of the captains and other “key men” of the tuna fleet and their families still live in San Diego. Instead of making the short trip down to the docks, however, they now fly back and forth between San Diego and the ports such as Guam or American Samoa in the Western Pacific where their boats are based. Given the lower wages earned by deck hands on the tuna boats, the cost of repeatedly making such a flight would be prohibitive. Faced with the prospect of seeing their families only once or twice a year, it is little wonder that the sons of San Diego’s tuna fishermen no longer follow their fathers to sea.



1. “Statistics of the Eastern Pacific Ocean Tuna Fishery, 1979 to 1992,” IATTC Data Report No. 8, (1994), 70; Annual Report of the IATTC, 1974, 139.

2. Michael Orbach, Hunters, Seamen and Entrepreneurs: The Tuna Seinermen of San Diego (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 57.

3. Kirkpatrick Sale, The Green Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 4.

4. Christopher Manes, Green Rage (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1990), 58.

5. Ibid., 86.

6. James Joseph, “The Tuna-Dolphin Controversy in the Eastern Pacific Ocean,” Ocean Development and International Law, 25 (1994): 2.

7. Armstrong, “The Porpoise-Tuna Controversy,” 2.

8. Tom Garrett, “The Tuna-Porpoise Story,” pamphlet produced by Friends of the Earth, Records of the American Tunaboat Association, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD (Hereinafter referred to as ATA) Box 230, 4.

9. Gary Sakagawa, “Are U.S. Regulations on Tuna-Dolphin Fishing Driving U.S. Seiners to Foreign-Flag Registry?,” North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 11 (No. 3): 244.

10. Joseph, “The Tuna-Dolphin Controversy in the Eastern Pacific Ocean: Biological, Economic and Political Impacts,” 3.

11. Washington Post clipping, 28 May 1976, Box 230, ATA.

12. Alessandro Bonanno and Douglas Constance, Caught in the Net (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1996), 129.

13. Letter to the ATA from Mrs. Ferry’s second grade class, May 1976, Box 36, ATA.

14. Letters to the ATA from Mrs. Powers’ environmental studies class, January 1976, Box 36, ATA.

15. Letter to the ATA from John Laurence, 11 June 1976, Box 36, ATA.

16. “Statement on the Tuna-Porpoise Problem,” Audubon Naturalist Society of the Central Atlantic States, Northern Virginia Conservation Council, 11 May 1977.

17. Alan Jenkins to ATA, 11 July 1977, Box 99, ATA.

18. Ibid.

19. Invoice dated 1 February 1977, Tom Gable Co. to the ATA, Box 191, ATA.

20. Del Mar News Press clipping, 12 January 1977, Box 230, ATA.

21. “Facts about the Porpoise and Tuna Fishing” brochure, Box 191, ATA.

22. Transcript of Walter Cronkite’s radio address, 17 November 1975, Box 190, ATA.

23. Joseph, “The Tuna-Dolphin Controversy in the Eastern Pacific Ocean,” 3.

24. Ken Hudson, “Restrictions Called Threat to Tuna Fleet,” San Diego Union, 26 October 1975, B-1.

25. August Felando, interview by author, 27 October 1997, San Diego, CA (Hereinafter referred to as Felando interview).

26. Fisheries of the U.S., 1976, United States Commerce Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, 9.

27. Fisheries of the U.S., 1975, 12.

28. Stanley Minasian, “Dolphins and/or Tuna,” Oceans, November-December 1977, 60.

29. G. M. Prather, “U.S. Sets New Fishing Rules,” San Diego Union, 25 February 1977, A-1.

30. Ken Hudson, “Rep. Leggett Rates Porpoise First,” San Diego Union, 26 February 1977, A-1.

31. Ken Hudson, “Porpoise Quota Set, Tunaboats Head for Port,” San Diego Union, 25 February 1977, A-1.

32. “Tuna Industry is Happier this Year,” Tampa Tribune clipping, 2 June 1978, Box 230, ATA.

33. San Diego Daily Transcript clipping, 7 January 1977, Box 230, ATA.

34. Ken Hudson, “Foreign Flag Tuna Curbs Seen In Ban,” San Diego Union, 12 January 1977, B-3.

35. Ken Hudson, “Rep. Leggett Rates Porpoise First; Fleet Transfer Raises Questions,” San Diego Union, 26 February 1977, A-1.

36. G.M. Prather, “U.S. Tuna Laws Pose An Enigma,” San Diego Union, 11 September 1977, A-1.

37. “Tunaboats Can Be Saved,” San Diego Union, 5 April 1977, B-10.

38. “Canner Purchase of Foreign Tuna Nearly Doubles,” San Diego Union, 5 April 1977, B-1.

39. “Tunaboats Can Be Saved,” San Diego Union, 5 April 1977, B-10.

40. Ken Hudson, “U.S. Agency Denies Aid To Tuna Industry,” San Diego Union, 7 February 1978, B-1.

41. Ken Hudson, “Tunamen Weigh Anchor, Put Faith in Murphy Bill,” San Diego Union, 13 May 1977, A-1.

42. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Economic and Marketing Division, “Economic Analysis of the Impact of Proposed Quotas for Regulating Incidental Mortality of Porpoise Associated with Purse-Seine Fishing for Yellowfin Tuna,” 29 August, 1975, 35.


43. G.M. Prather, “U.S. Tuna Laws Pose An Enigma,” San Diego Union, 11 September 1977, A-14

44. Fisheries of the United States, 1977, 10.

45. Ibid., 9.

46. Ibid., 12.

47. Felando interview, 30.

48. Testimony of Franklin G. Alverson at public hearing on the MMPA, 21 August 1973, Box 161, ATA.

49. Jackson, “The Dolphin CatchÑand Catch-22,” 60.

50. Garrett, “The Tuna-Porpoise Story,” 2.

51. Ibid., 6.

52. Ibid., 7.

53. Benjamin Shore, “Tunaboat Flag Switching Danger Told,” San Diego Union, 15 January 1977, B-8.

54. Tom Gable to August Felando, n.d., Box 191, ATA.

55. Memo from Endicott “Chub” Peabody to August Felando, 2 June 1977, Box 190, ATA.

56. G. M. Prather, “Environmentalist Positions Differ in ‘Tuna War,'” San Diego Union, 22 May 1977, A-8.

57. Ibid.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid.

60. G.M. Prather, “U.S. Tuna Laws Pose An Enigma,” San Diego Union, 11 September, 1977, A-14.

61. National Research Council, Dolphins and the Tuna Industry (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992), 63.

62. Fisheries of the U.S., 1975-1980, U.S. Commerce Department, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service.

63. James Joseph and Joseph Greenough, International Management of Tuna, Porpoise, and Billfish (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 157.

64. National Research Council, Dolphins and the Tuna Industry, 72.

65. Joseph and Greenough, International Management of Tuna, Porpoise, and Billfish, 164.

66. Felando interview.

67. Fisheries of the United States, 1975, 12; Fisheries of the United States, 1980, 10.

68. National Research Council, Dolphins and the Tuna Industry, 63; Sakagawa, “Are U.S. Regulations on Tuna-Dolphin Fishing Driving U.S. Seiners to Foreign-Flag Registry?,” 244.

69. “Statistics of the Eastern Pacific Ocean Tuna Fishery, 1979 to 1992,” IATTC Data Report No. 8, (1994), 70; Annual Report of the IATTC, (1974), 139.

70. “Estimated catches by surface gear, in short tons, by the eastern Pacific tuna fleet,” Annual Report of the IATTC, 1995, 171.

71. Douglas Whynott, “Flipper Victorious,” San Diego’s Weekly Reader, 22 May, 1996, 22.

72. United States International Trade Commission, Tuna: Competitive Conditions Affecting the United States and European Tuna Industries, December 1990, 6-1, USITC Publication 2339.

73. Ken Hudson, “Fishing Poor Off Ecuador, Official Says,” San Diego Union, 26 February 1976, A-4.

74. Bonnano and Constance, Caught in the Net, 134.

75. Annual Report of the IATTC, 1993.


Mark Schoell teaches history at Palomar College in San Marcos. He received his Master’s degree in history from San Diego State University in 1998 and his B.S. degree in business from the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote his M.A. thesis on the decline of San Diego’s once-thriving tuna fishing industry. He has also researched and written on topics including the Owens Valley Water War, the San Diego & Arizona Railroad, and Radicalism in the 1960s.