Monday, December 15, 2008

Dan Haifley, Our Ocean Backyard: Immigrants built our fishing heritage

An interesting piece telling all the groups of immigrants who developed the fisheries on the CA coast. DP

By Dan Haifley, executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey

My last column discussed the gift the Ohlones gave subsequent generations on the Central Coast: the industry and culture of fishing. But the favor was not well-returned. Contact with earlier European arrivals was fatal to this peaceful society.

By the 1800s, fishing was taken up by subsequent immigrant communities. While the Ohlones had fished from land, their successors took to the sea to seek Dungeness crab, salmon, sardines, tuna, halibut, rockfish and abalone.

Fishing became such an active industry that the California Legislature approved the Fish and Game Act in 1852. In 1860, the act was used to control trout fishing and in 1870, a new Board of Fish Commissioners required fish ladders at state dams to help stem their losses. Fishing licenses were required by 1900 and nine years later, the state Department of Fish and Game came into existence. Who brought this newly regulated industry to life?

In his book "Chinese Gold," historian and author Sandy Lydon describes a fishing trade among Chinese immigrants that thrived in the 1800s in an area roughly between Ano Nuevo and Point Sur. In 1814, Chinese immigrants were a key part of the Monterey Peninsula's expansion, and salmon was their primary target.

China Point in Point Lobos was packed with homes on stilts with flat-bottomed boats tied to them. Over 600 Chinese fishermen were reportedly active in the area by 1853 and commercial fishing colonies existed

in other areas, including Santa Cruz. In his book, Lydon recounts the practical design of Chinese boats and the sophisticated fishing techniques their owners used.
The Chinese in Monterey were frequently forced to fish for squid at night to avoid conflicts with other trawlers. They were often accused of depleting fisheries; racial stereotypes and political pressures were likely the motivation behind these charges.

Portuguese whalers came to the region in the 1850s, but the advent of kerosene made whale oil and the whaling trade less profitable. They joined a fishing industry that grew rapidly in the late 1800s. In Monterey, Italian fishermen introduced the "lampra net" from Sicily in the early 1900s. Its speed and strength enabled larger volumes of fish to be caught at once. Some credit this innovation with the ascension of the sardine business. Japanese fishermen in Monterey pioneered abalone harvesting in the late 1890s, and their fishing and canning techniques earned them a place in the economic life of Cannery Row. Monterey came to be known as the sardine capital after the first packing plant was built in 1900. Within a few years, boats were hauling 25 tons a night to 18 canneries.

In the 1870s, hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish were being shipped out of Santa Cruz by people with last names like Canepa and Carniglia. Cottardo Stagnaro arrived in Santa Cruz from Italy around 1874 and with his family he established a successful fishing company, as did John and Sunday Faraola in 1902 on Santa Cruz' railroad wharf. Italian fishing families suffered economically during World War II when they were excluded from doing business in coastal areas.

Historically, fisheries were productive, but they also experienced natural cycles, which, most famously in the case of sardines, led to a collapse. More recently, salmon season was closed in Central California, which is devastating a key slice of the region's economy.

Today, the fishing industry is clearly under siege, but a recent study estimates that it still adds more than $150 million a year to our economy. While the future of the industry is uncertain, one fact will remain: The Central Coast's history, culture and economy were built on fishing, starting with the Ohlones.

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