Proposed Cannery Hopes to Reel In S. Pacific Market
In an era when cannery closings have been the rule rather than the exception, officials at the Port of Los Angeles are negotiating with a company that proposes to build a $12-million, state-of-the-art fish processing plant on Terminal Island.
The highly automated operation would be the most modern in Los Angeles and among the most sophisticated on the West Coast, according to Graeme McIsaac of Los Angeles Harbor Fisheries Inc., which plans to begin construction next month and to begin processing fish in about a year.
Because automation will cut labor costs, McIsaac said, the company would be able to compete against foreign exporters in overseas markets, something other American fish canning companies have been unable to do.
In addition, McIsaac said, his company is talking about having its own small fleet of boats to supply the plant, which could put the firm in competition with San Pedro fishermen who own their own cannery.
Los Angeles Harbor Fisheries, whose investors McIsaac declined to name, is seeking to lease port property at Berth 265 in Fish Harbor for its operation. Star-Kist Foods, which operates one of the three remaining canneries on Terminal Island, recently demolished a warehouse at that site.
McIsaac and Phil Tondreault, real estate officer for the Los Angeles Harbor Department, said they hope to iron out details so harbor commissioners can vote on the lease agreement on May 25.
The cannery proposal calls for a 72,000-square-foot, two-story facility that would process and package mostly mackerel, as well as squid, bonito and sardines, for human consumption overseas, primarily in the Philippines and the South Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Those markets are being supplied mainly by canneries in Japan, Korea and Thailand, where labor is less expensive.
McIsaac said that, depending on the season, the new cannery would employ between 50 and 150 workers, about half the work force that a less-modern cannery of the same size would require. The plant would use machinery to decapitate, gut and fillet fish--jobs performed by hand at other canneries.
The Los Angeles Harbor Fisheries cannery would be capable of processing between 300 and 400 tons of fish a day, for which the company already has willing buyers, McIsaac said.
Despite his rosy outlook, these have been hard times for the local fish canning industry.
“They’re going to have to compete with the Japanese, principally, and that’s going to be tough competition,” said Charles Fullerton, regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “By the time you try to compete with the cost of shipping and everything else, it makes it a very competitive market.”
A spokesman for Star-Kist said that although the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and other South Pacific countries have “very substantial markets in canned mackerel,” Star-Kist has never tried to break in and take some of that business from the Japanese.
“We were never able to compete with them cost-wise,” said Ed Ryan, vice president for business development. “The Japanese have a tremendous mackerel catch every year. . . . The boats land an awful lot of fish at very low prices, and, of course, the freight isn’t too much.”
Such stiff competition from lower-cost canneries overseas has been a major factor in the decline in the fish processing business on Terminal Island, which once had more than a dozen canneries.
Only three remain: Pan Pacific Fisheries, which is the only remaining tuna cannery in the continental United States, Star-Kist Foods and United Food Processors, both of which process mackerel for human consumption and pet food.