Billion-dollar-tuna fish sandwich

"I heard the other boat on the radio, telling their helicopter pilot to push me off the school, to get me outta there. So I got on the radio and I said to the other pilot, 'Listen, you ain't fooling around with no novice here. You're talking about a guy with 6,000 hours in the air. You come near me and I'll fly over you and blow you into the water.' The other guy got out of there pretty quick and left the fish to us."

The helicopter pilot, Jerry Alexander, is recounting a time when a rival outfit tried to horn in on a school of tuna he had spotted. Mr. Alexander has been around helicopters for about as long as helicopters have been around. He's flown oil fields, Alaska, overseas, and just about everywhere else. Just now he works for Tommy Kravello, owner and captain of the Roseanne Marie, a 220-foot tuna purse seiner out of San Diego. Mr. Alexander's tale of dueling helicopters at sea gives some indication of what goes into fishing for yellowfin tuna and skipjack: high technology, fierce competition, and a boatload of savvy.

It's a business in which helicopters are becoming as common as fishing boats and the catch rich enough to propel countries into bitter exchanges of words and sanctions.

The Roseanne Marie is sleek enough to look almost right at home in the yacht marina at Monte Carlo. The hull shines spick-and-span white under a new coat of paint, and the bow rakes forward sharply.

But the boom rising out of the stern makes short work of that illusion. A massive steel arm, it slants sharply above the deck at a 45-degree angle, gnarled at the base with a fistful of winches, cables, motors, and levers. The watering holes of the rich would make the Roseanne Marie feel as out of place as a Little Leaguer at a bridge club's afternoon tea. This boat is all work.

Especially Tommy Kravello's. He owns the Roseanne Marie. More to the point, he makes the payments: roughly a quarter of a million dollars every six months, and that's just the beginning of the money it takes to keep the six holds stuffed with rivers of tuna. Mr. Kravello dips into his pocket to the tune of $ 2.5 million a year to keep his boat working. An idle day costs him roughly $6, 500.

Think about that the next time you chomp into a tuna fish sandwich or munch through a saladale Nicoise. For all its ability to see the family grocery budget through casserole night, tuna is big business, a huge business. Right now, it is keeping several hundred boats like Tommy Kravello's busy plying the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean, and the boatyards going full blast to build more.

Americans love tuna fish. They alone gobble up nearly half the tuna eaten each year, some 715 million pounds. The boats that sail under United States registration cannot supply even all of the US demand. The 1979 catch, according to the American Tunabout Association here, was 600 million pounds. The canning end of the industry sells $1.25 billion worth of tuna a year.

The bulk of the American tuna fleet ties up in southern California, at the harbor in San Diego and 100 miles north in San Pedro, the port that serves Los Angeles. Its technology makes it one of the most efficient fishing fleets in the world, rivaling the enormous, government-subsidized fleets of Japan and the Soviet Union.

The simple life of a fisherman has become complex in Mr. Kravello's lifetime. The men who put to the sea in boats are still rugged individuals, abiding by well-defined codes of honor as well as a strong work ethic. But their boats have changed considerably, as has the environment in which they operate.

When Tommy Kravello dropped out of school at 14 to work on a tuna boat, the measure of a good fisherman was his ability to catch fish and earn a decent living for his family. Now, Mr. Kravello owns three boats, worth between $7 million and $8 million. He still talks like a tuna fisherman -- "Tommy doesn't forget where he came from," one crewman from the Roseanne Marie comments -- but he can also talk like a lawyer or an accountant. More and more, he's learning to deal with the language of politics.

Mr. Kravello worked his way to the top the hard way, but then there is no easy way up. He worked 14 years as a crewman before becoming a captain and then buying his first boat. A good captain makes the difference between a full hold and one only half full, so if a man has a good reputation as a captain banks are willing to lend the huge sums necessary to buy a boat -- at a hefty interest rate.

There are other ways to buy a boat, though.

"The canneries are always hungrey for fish. They can never get enough," one insider says. "So if they hear about a captain who's doing well, someone might show up at his house one evening and say, 'How'd you like to own your own boat?' Then the canner will sell him one and finance it at no interest." In return, the boat owner will sell his catch to that canner until the boat is paid off.

Boat owners fish for a specific canner, anyway, on each trip, and in return the canner advances some of the cost for food ($20,000 per trip) and fuel ($212, 500 every time the Rosanne Marie fills up).

Nevertheless, Mr. Kravello is nobody's employee.He is the undisputed master of boat and crew and enjoys a reputation not only as one of the industry's best but also most honest captains. "Tommy will always, always be straight with you, " Bobby Morris, the boat's 21-year-old navigator and the youngest navigator in the San Diego fleet, says. "He won't make life easy for you, but people like to work for him."

In 1958, when Mr. Kravello started in the industry, tuna was caught by strong-armed men yanking hard on fishing poles. Now he tracks the schools of tuna with sonar. The navigator on board the Roseanne Marie charts his position by flicking on the Magnavox Satellite Navigator which, on a video screen, tells him precisely -- almost to a pinpoint -- where in the world the boat is. Mr. Kravello spends much of his day at sea up in his Bell 47 Soloy turbine conversion chopper (cost: $206,000, plus $30,000 for spare parts) looking for fish. When he finds them, the boat drops a net 610 fathoms long around them. Some of the newer boats are equipped with infrared devices that detect temperature changes as small as 4/10 of a degree. They scan the horizon at night, looking for the warmer fish swimming in a colder ocean.

Mr. Kravello combines this sophisticated technology with his hard-earned experience to find the tuna and get it on board more quickly. The sooner the Roseanne Marie fills her holds, the sooner she can return home and then head out to sea again for more tuna.

It is a highly complex operation, tuna fishing, and in the best of times it can be a terrifically profitable one. America's appetite for tuna sandwiches makes a full hold on Roseanne Marie worth a shade over $1.2 million. A boat captain can earn between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. A crew member brings in between $15,000 and $20,000. On a good boat, he might make $25,000. On a bad boat, maybe $8,000.

The good money, though, is earned through exhausting work.

"People read about the money a tuna fisherman makes, and they think, 'Those guys have it made,'" Joe Adamo, a 35-year veteran and Mr. Kravello's deck boss (second in command), says. "But they don't realize what kind of work it takes to make that money. We're away from our families sometimes nine months out of the year, and when we're out at sea the work goes for 16 1/2 hours a day plus a two-hour watch at night.

"Even when you're not making a set [getting the nets in place in the water], there's always something to do on a boat. There's no such thing as idle time on a tuna boat."

Even so, the business is a good one. "You take a 17, 18- year-old kid who makes 25 grand, that's not too shabby," Mr. Kravello remarks. "this has always been an industry where, if you apply yourself, you can go somewhere. . . . Look at me. I started at 14 with nothing, and here I am 35 years old and I own three boats."

However, if the economics of tuna fishing add up to a rosy future, the turbulent politics of it do not. In July, the Mexican government seized one of Mr. Kravello's boats, the Marla Marie. Mexico claims a 200-mile fishing limit and demands that all boats fishing within that limit buy licenses to do so. The US, though, claims that since the tuna is a migratory fish, swimming all over the world, it belongs to no country. To prove its point, Mexico seized the Marla Marie, confiscated its small catch (worth $65,000) and nets ($220,000), and fined Mr. Kravello $13,000. His insurance covers some of that loss, but for the 16 crew members whose pay comes from shares of the catch, the trip was a total bust. Mexico kept the boat's nets, and the Marla Marie has not worked since.

"Some of those guys haven't seen any money for four months. No catch, no money," Mr. Kravello explains. "Tell that to the landlord."

The US State Departmen has assured the tuna fleet all along that the boundary dispute was under negotiation, and that the fleet was within its rights to fish inside Mexico's claimed 200-mile zone. Ecuador claimed a 200-mile limit in 1964 and started to seize US boats at every opportunity. Most of the fleet now stays out of Ecuador's waters. "Those guys down there, they break arms and legs. Now if they catch a boat fishing without a license, they put the captain in jail for three years," Mr. Kravello says.

Other Latin countries have similar plans for 200 mile boundaries. He points to a spot of ocean near Panama on the map. "If I fish in this spot, I could be in violation of the fishing boundaries of three different countries at the same time."

The alternative is to buy licenses, good for only 60 days, from those countries, but the fees are prohibitive. Mexico charges $60 per ton of fish the boat is capable of holding. That's $24,000 for the small, 151-foot Marla Marie, which holds 400 tons. The boat owner must pay the fee in advance, so if Mr. Kravello buys a license for the Marla Marie, he may well catch no fish for his money and then have to buy a license to fish in another country's claimed territorial waters. The Marla Marie is too small to work outside 200 miles.

The sorest spot for him in all this is the old shoulder he feels he has received from the US State Department.

"Nobody from the State Department or federal government talks to me. I don't even get a phone call to say, 'Hey, Tommy, we're taking care of you.'

"I resent the fact that they are keeping a very low profile on this. There's a lot of money involved here. I've been a tuna fisherman for 22 years. I pay my taxes, and I want to get the feeling I'm being represented, even if it's just to call me and touch bases. I know the State Department has other problems and we don't look very significant, but I'm an American citizen. I was born here. I don't think this is the way the government should treat one of its citizens."

About 90 percent of the tuna fishermen are either Portuguese or Italian. Its members form a tightly knit, isolated pocket of Old World values in a city that has come to symbolize the southern California life style.

The Portuguese families moved here from New England, looking for a prosperous commercial fishery. Many of the Italian families, most of them with roots in Genoa, came down from San francisco after the great earthquake. Japanese-Americans introduced and refined the fishing techniques; but by the end of World War I, Portuguese and Italians dominated the industry, using bigger boats and staying out at sea for longer periods, eventually following the tuna schools as they migrated south.

Commercial tuna fishing started in 1903 when canner Alfred Halfhill of San Pedro ran out of sardines. Albacore, a species of tuna, were plentiful, though. They were considered a trash fish, but Mr. Halfhill canned some and passed out samples in Los Angeles grocery stores. Credit him with whatever feelings you might have about tuna-noodle casserole.

The industry has grown steadily since then with few set- backs (what Mr. Kravello terms "a very simple, honorable business") until, he adds, "the politics got involved."

The politics are those not only of foreign governments flexing their muscles, but also those of his own government, which is determined to protect spinner porpoises -- an endangered species, according to environmentalists.

Spinners are one of three species of porpoise that for unknown reasons swim over schools of tuna. When a tuna boat captain spies a school of porpoises -- and a school of them can number anywhere from three to 30,000 -- chances are that tuna are swimming not far below. The helicopter pilot can spot the tuna from above, and can save the captain the waste of setting nets in areas where there are no tuna beneath the porpoises.

Once the net is down and drawn in, the porpoises sometimes becomes tangled in the mesh and drown. Many fishermen recognize the need to preserve the porpoise -- "I make my living off porpoise," Mr. Kravello says -- and the industry has developed a number of techniques and technologies to save them.

The results are some of the most impressive in the field of animal conservation. In 1975, an estimated 154,000 porpoises were killed by US boats. Over the last three years the average has dropped to about 15,000, according to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) figures. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the 1980 porpoise quota is 32,000. To date, the fleet has killed on ly 11,000.

The tuna fishermen find this quota reasonable, and they are certain that, in most years, they can keep the actual kill down to about 15,500. The law, however, sets a "mortality level approaching zero," as its goal.

"That's impossible," Mr. Kravello says. "You might as well pass a law against tuna fishing."

There are other ways to find tuna, but only when the schools are relatively close to shore. Beyond 200 miles, where the fleet is increasingly being forced to fish, 90 percent of the tuna is caught beneath the enormous schools of porpoises. It is impossible for the fishermen to tell what kind of porpoises are frolicking with the tuna until the porpoises are tangled in the nets.

The NMFS carried the controversy to even more turbulent waters when it recently proposed a new porpoise regulation. A federal report suggested that the northern spotted porpoise species was nearing extinction, and the NMFS proposed a total ban on tuna fishing off porpoises north of the equator. Once again, to the tuna fishermen, that was like banning their livelihood.

In August, an administrative law judge sided with the fishermen and recommended to the secretary of commerce, the final boss over the NMFS, that the regulation be withdrawn. In his decision, Judge Hugh Dolan also took NMFS to task for completely ignoring the scientific data gathered by its observers stationed on at least half the tuna boats which set on porpoises. The final decision now rests with the secretary of commerce.

Fishermen like Mr. Kravello complain that their industry is being regulated by people who know nothing about it. They resent deeply being painted as heartless murderers of porpoises.

"Every other trip I have to carry a government observer with me. It's like putting a cop in your house."

Environmentalists want the quotas to keep coming down, and they see the projection of a 15,000 porpoise kill for 1980 as evidence "that the tuna industry has the technology to bring down the number of porpoises killed," Toby Cooper of Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C., based organization that is part of a coalition of groups heavily involved in the controversy, comments.

"We recognize what the tuna fishermen have done, that they have made significant strides in reducing the porpoise kill and that there has been a good faith effort on their part," Mr. Cooper says. "We appreciate it, and we thank them . . . [but] they want to leave the quotas where they are, and we want to continue scaling them down."

Environmentalists would like support from the industry for research into alternatives to purse seining -- setting the nets on schools of porpoises -- for catching. The ruling by Judge Dolan, however, that the offshore spotted porpoises are not, in fact, depleted, pulls the rug out from under any leverage the environmental community might have had to pressure the tuna industry into a compromise. In sum, this round of the tuna-porpoise battle goes to the fleet.

The double whammy of politics and inflation has put such a squeeze on the US tuna fishing industry that it may have difficulty surviving. Most of the fleet, August Felando, president of the American Tunabout Association, points out operates in the red, and a number of boats have fled to foreign flags. Some 40 boats have gone foreign over the last three years. Ten boats gave up their US registration this summer alone.

Ironically, the porpoise regulations may result in still greater species depletion, since the foreign fleets don't bother with even the most basic porpoise-saving techniques, Mr. Felando notes. They kill 250 percent more of the playful mammals than the American fleet.

Still, there is tuna to be caught and boat payments to make, so the fleet sails. After $250,000 in overhaul work plus $132,000 for repairs on the helicopter that crashed last trip out (with mr. Kravello and Mr. Alexander in it), the Roseanne Marie slipped out of its mooring the first week in September and headed out to sea.

The crew can expect to be away from home for 90 days. The average trip used to last 60 days, but soaring fueld prices have forced Mr. Kravello to throttle back on his speed. "It means we spend more time looking for the fish," he says. The boat holds 250,000 gallons of fuel, and the 16-cylinder diesel engine burns, 4,000-5,000 gallons a day, at 85 cents a gallon.

A few miles south, the Mexican government uses its newfound oil wealth to subsidize its tuna fleet, charging boat owners 15 cents a gallon.

The boat heads south, often as far a South America and sometimes 1,000 miles off the coast. Under previous owners, the Roseanne Marie -- christened the Mary Elizabeth eight years ago -- ventured to lands as distant as the Philippines and the west coast of Africa.

Before he converted the top of the boat's bridge to a helicopter pad, Mr. Kravello spent most of his time aloft, in an oversized bucket on top the 90 ft. mast, always looking for some sign of tuna. He looks for porpoises, the sun glinting off a school of tuna, or any object floating on the surface (tuna frequently cluster around a log, a stick, even an old refrigerator).

The helicopter allows him to be more precise and cover much more ground, but the tuna are getting harder and harder to find. The number of boats increases every year. Even when he finds the tuna, competition is fierce. Helicopter pilot Jerry Alexander and Mr. Kravello have had more than one battle in the sky with the competition.

"One time we were out flying," Mr. Alexander recalls, "and Tommy said, 'I think I see something over to the right.' So I told him to remember the spot, and I flew over in the direction of a boat that had been sticking pretty close to us. I flew right over that boat and then headed off in another direction. Then I stopped and hovered. That boat just headed full steam for where we were, and when it got there we radioed the Roseanne Marie where the tuna were. Just sucked that other boat right off the fish."

When the boat "sets" on a school, it drops four one-man speedboats into the water (it carries a fifth in case of a breakdown) and they race back and forth along the edge of the school, herding it together compactly. The younger members of the screw serve as speedboat jockeys, and in the big waves the boats frequently leave the water completely, sometimes flipping over.

Once these seagoing cowboys get the herd where they want it, a crew member releases a huge skiff that sits on the stern of the seiner. One end of the net, some 3/4 of a mile long, is fixed to the bow of the skiff and it plays out as the boat pulls away. Once the net is out, the Roseanne Marie pulls it into a horseshoe around the tuna, winches the two ends together, and closes up the bottom. The crew then pulls the net aboard through a loop on the end of the boom, some 25 feet above the deck.

Before the net comes in, though, the boat backs down, creating slack in the specially-designed net so the porpoises can swim out. (The tuna stay deeper in the water than the porpoises, and the net is lowered enough to allow only porpoises to swim free.) Two speedboats stay in the water, by federal regulation , for the sole purpose of helping porpoises out of the nets, and the drivers often jump into the nets to push the porpoises out. During one such instance this summer, a young crew member on another boat was attacked and killed by a shark in the net, adding substantially to the bitterness felt among the fishermen and their families over the porpoise regulations.

A set can take in as much as 40 tons of tuna, but the average, Mr. Kravello says, is about 3 tons. Tuna are kept fresh by a spaghetti-like network of refrigeration pipes below decks. The Roseanne Marie and its 18 crew members will stay at sea until the holds are full of 1,050 tons of tuna or until she runs out of fuel.

Boats sliding out of shipyards now are 300 feet long, with holds twice the size of the Roseanne Marie. They come with faster, more powerful winches, bigger nets, bigger engines, and bigger price tags, in the $8 million neighborhood.

Yet there is considerable question about who will run these boats. "There's not much young blood coming into the industry now," Edward Silva of the tuna boat association comments.

Mr. Kravello has three children, one of them a boy, 13. "He's been out for a couple of weeks during the summer. He likes it, but I don't want to encourage him in it because I don't even know if I'm going to be in it.

"But I'll tell you something. It's the best thing in the world for a young man. You eat good, work hard, and you're off the streets. I don't want my son to be a tuna fisherman . . . but it

"But who is going to build an $8 million boat when he's going to have his hands tied by the government and have his boat seized by the other countries? The other countries, they want this fleet badly."

"Every day there are foreigners up here trying to buy boats and trying to buy the talent that runs them. The key to a good tuna operation is the captain, and we have all of them," George Sousa, a 35-year veteran of the fleet, owner of the purse seiner Rafaello, and chairman of the board of the American Tunabout Association says. "But we don't want to go foreign. Our grandfathers and our fathers built this industry in this town. This is our town. . . .

"I'd say the future is up in the air. It all depends on the regulations. Otherwise, the fellas will have to sell their talents elsewhere. I love tuna fishing, though. It's been my life. It's been good to me and good to my family.I will fight for it with my last breath."

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK