For nearly a century, San Diego held a special distinction that was a magnet to immigrants looking to ride the United States wave of prosperity.

That distinction – the city’s rich history in the tuna fishing industry – is the subject of the San Diego History Center’s current exhibit at Balboa Park. The industry’s prevalence brought families of Italian, Portuguese, Japanese and Latino descent to the city.

Before flaming out in the 1970s, tuna fishing was a way of life for many residents. The occupation reached its pinnacle in the 1940s, when an estimated 95 percent of United States tuna was canned right in the city.

Lifelong San Diegan Julius Zolezzi was a tuna fisher for many years, starting his journey as a child and working alongside his father in the 1930s. Four generations, his family made a living off the trade in the city’s harbor.

“It’s hard work, but it brought in good money,” Zolezzi said, who continued his work into the 1980s. “Everybody worked hard. It was just an innate thing. You did what you had to do to get the job done. By the end of the day, you would collapse.”

Many workers – Zolezzi included – made their work in the fishing industry a family affair. Children would work alongside their fathers, and wives would traditionally assist with such tasks as sewing nets.

“As it turned out, the sons usually followed in the footsteps of their fathers,” Zolezzi said. “That’s what happened to me. You grow up pretty fast when you’re around older men all the time.”

Zolezzi got his feet wet in the fishing industry in between years at school. Once he graduated, he went full-time; at age 22, was the captain of one the 200-plus vessels traversing the shores of the Pacific Ocean in San Diego. He put in 27 years as captain.

Matt Schiff, a curator at the San Diego History Center, said the exhibit – running through Dec. 31 – touches on the industry’s storied history, which is rooted in the 1870s as Japanese natives caught tuna off the city’s coast and sold their findings at markets in town.

“I wanted this to be a real hands-on, interactive exhibit,” Schiff said. “I think there are engaging activities for children and adults. For example, people can get a feel, in one display, of what it was like to can tuna.”

The exhibit also displays the various techniques used to catch tuna, from bamboo poles to sophisticated nets that were made out of a durable nylon material. Displays also give spectators a feel for the true sophistication and grand scale of the boats, some weighing as much as 400 tons.

Before such corporations as Chicken of the Sea and StarKist came to town, tuna fishing was a purely entrepreneurial activity. Schiff said it was almost “wild west and cowboy-ish.”

Tuna fishing, of course, has not been without controversy; a fact included in the exhibit. In the 1960s, environmentalists began to decry existing practices as word got out about dolphins, turtles and other marine life getting caught in nets. Environmental concerns led to federal legislation that closely restricted tuna fishing techniques in the early 1970s.

Local workers, including Zolezzi, continued to live in the city but caught fish in the South Pacific region, where warmer water temperatures meant fewer dolphins.

“It meant extended periods of time away from family,” Zolezzi said, who sold his boat in 2005. “That was hard on everyone.”

Corporate canneries followed the migration, draining money and jobs from the local economy. When the last cannery, Van Camp Seafood Co., departed San Diego in 1984, Schiff said it resulted in the loss of about 12,000 jobs.

Regardless of the outcome, tuna fishing has left its imprint in the city, as evidenced by such neighborhoods as Little Italy.

“This is a proud, close-knit family tradition,” Schiff said, “and it’s something I hope people come to appreciate after seeing the exhibit.”