A Season of Plenty : A record catch of hefty tuna has pumped prosperity into San Pedro's fishing community. The 'miracle' is paying for boat engines, cars and homes.

Times Staff Writer

Giant fish paid for Miguel Vuoso's new set of golf clubs, for John Dimeglio's upcoming trip to Italy and for Vince Piscopo's new 1989 Lincoln. Giant fish may even account for increased collections lately at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro.

A record catch this winter by San Pedro fishermen of 767 of the biggest Pacific blue fin tuna ever taken by commercial fishing boats has pumped $3.5 million into Los Angeles' waterfront economy.

The 6- to 9-foot tuna weighing 300 to 1,009 pounds are a mystery to fishermen and marine biologists. Pacific blue fin tuna this size have never been seen or caught before.

"Catching the huge tuna was totally unexpected. It's God's gift to the San Pedro fishermen. I have been fishing 50 years here, ever since I came to America from Sicily when I was 9 years old. Nothing like this has ever happened," says Skipper Sal Russo, 59, of the 66-foot Tooter, a purse seiner, or fishing boat with a large net.

There is a flurry of activity at the San Pedro slip where the fishing fleet is docked. New engines have been purchased and are being placed in boats. Expensive new nets have been bought to replace old, tattered ones. Purse seiners are going into boatyard dry docks for long overdue repairs. All are because of the big fish.

"It's a miracle," insists Jose Magana, 39, one of nine fishermen aboard the Tooter, each receiving $22,000 for his share in netting giant tuna in the waters of Santa Rosa and San Nicolas Islands off the Southern California coast.

Magana says he will use his windfall as a down payment for a house. "My wife and I always wanted a home of our own. We have always paid rent. Now, at last, we can get one because of the big fish," he says.

Hitting the Jackpot

"Automobile agencies, merchants, tradesmen, boatyards, marine hardwares, net makers and many others in the San Pedro area are sharing in our good luck," notes Anton (Slavo) Stonojevich, 49, acting general manager of the Fishermen's Cooperative Assn.

Stonojevich says 135 fishermen on 15 boats have shared in the wealth generated by the giant blue fin tuna. He said they have earned from an extra few thousand dollars to more than $37,000 each.

The San Pedro fisherman can thank the Japanese for part of the bonanza. All of the giant fish were packed in ice upon being brought ashore in November, December and the first week of this month. Immediately, the fish were flown to Japan, where they commanded a record $20 to $32 per pound at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Japanese connoisseurs eagerly pay as much as $10 a bite in restaurants for rare tuna such as this--the bigger and the older the fish, the better the price it fetches.

"Now the fishermen are being paid and spending the money all over town," he says. "Everybody is benefiting from the big fish."

Skipper Isidoro Amalfitano, 47, of the 88-foot-long Sea Scout and his crew are installing a $100,000 engine. "We needed a new engine a long time. With the new engine we will have more speed. With more speed we will catch more fish," Amalfitano says.

The Sea Scout had a catch worth a total of $1 million in 1988 with $250,000 of it coming in just a few weeks from the giant tuna, he said.

Across from the Sea Scout, fishermen on the Maria and the Tooter were loading aboard new $100,000, 2,400-foot-long, 270-foot deep nets purchased with money earned from the big fish.

Fishermen of the weather-beaten, 52-year-old, 84-foot purse seiner Maria hit the jackpot in their catch of the monster fish. On the night of Dec. 11, the Maria caught 131 of the giants weighing 41,290 pounds--an average of 315 pounds each. The boat caught 11 more of the big fish a week later.

The Maria received $666,000 from the two trips. After expenses about half went to the crew to be divided into equal shares and about half went to the boat, as happens on all purse seiners.

Each of the nine fishermen aboard the Maria received $37,648.56 for the two nights' work. After deducting $9,395 for federal income tax, $1,882 state income tax, $2,822.35 in FICA, $197.10 in state disability insurance, $380.81 union dues and $67.35 for groceries, each fisherman's check amounted to $22,903.95.

"I made more money those two days than I made in any one of the 26 years I have been fishing aboard the Maria," said crew member Miguel Vuoso, 56. "My best previous year was $26,000 before taxes and deductions. My poorest year was $3,000. If there are no fish, you don't make any money."

Vuoso plays golf every chance he gets when he isn't fishing. First thing he did when he received his check recently was to bank it, send money to his mother, brother and sisters in Argentina, then head for Los Verdes Golf Course, where he spent $850 for a new bag and a set of top-of-the-line clubs.

The giant tuna generated the biggest excitement in years for San Pedro's fishing fleet. Fishing has been a mainstay at the harbor since the turn of the century. In 1903, the first tuna cannery in the United States was erected there. From then through the 1920s and 1930s, San Pedro's population swelled with immigrant families from Yugoslavia and Italy who moved there to fish.

Many of today's fishermen are third-generation descendants of those immigrants and the talk at the Yugoslav-American and Sons of Italy clubs in San Pedro the past few weeks has mainly centered on the catch of the big tuna.

Fishing in San Pedro was at its height in the 1940s, when upward of 150 purse seiners with 2,000 fishermen sailed up and down the California coast and south to Mexico, Central America and South America to fish. Eight canneries here employed more than 7,000 workers, who processed their catch.

But with the disappearance of sardines in local waters beginning in 1951--and the relocation of canneries to offshore sites in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador and Samoa--the commercial fishing industry dwindled until now only 30 boats with crews numbering about 300 call San Pedro home. The two remaining canneries employ fewer than 800 workers.

Close-Knit Community

San Pedro today has a population of 70,000. It is one of the busiest harbors in the world. Thousands of pleasure boats are docked in marinas lining the shores of Los Angeles' southernmost point. And across from Ports O'Call, the popular cobblestoned waterfront village of shops and restaurants, are the wharfs of the fishing fleet, piled high with nets, where the purse seiners dock when they return from one-night to weeklong trips in pursuit of bonito, mackerel, squid and now the giant tuna.

But all through the years the fishermen of San Pedro and their families have been an integral part of the waterfront community. When Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church was built in 1950, it was the fishermen and the cannery workers who provided most of the funding for the new church.

"Our parish gets its name from the fishermen--the Virgin Mary guiding and protecting them when they are at sea. The statue of Mary on top of the church on the hill overlooking the harbor is lit every night so the fishermen can see her when they enter or leave the harbor on their boats," said the pastor, Msgr. Patrick Gallagher.

Inside the church on the main altar is a large statue of Mary holding a fishing boat in her arms. The boat represents the local fishing fleet. Gallagher said the church has also benefited from the fishermen's good fortune in recent weeks. "Our collections the last couple of months are noticeably higher than usual. I think you can thank those big fish," he said.

At the Canton restaurant near the corner of Sixth and Gaffey streets, many of the fishermen and retired fishermen gather each morning for breakfast. John (Blackie) Zorotovitch, 78; Bob Mezin, 65; his brother Norman, 61; Tony (Mama) Vidovich, 63, the official weigher for the local fishermen union, and others who no longer fish last week were kicking around an idea of leasing a boat and going out for the big tuna.

"We could put together a crew of some of the finest old-time skippers that ever sailed from San Pedro," mused Bob Mezin. "Guys like Blackie Zorotovitch; John Misetich, who is 80, and Augie Zuanich, who is 78. Hey, if these giant tuna keep showing up in local waters, it will be like old times again here in Pedro."

Blue fin tuna spawn in the Pacific off Japan and migrate back and forth 6,000 miles each direction across the ocean. Normally, blue fin tuna caught by fishermen weigh 20 to 100 pounds.

"We have no idea why these fish have suddenly showed up, where they came from or why they are so big," says marine biologist Bill Bayliff. "Age determines size, and it is obvious these are old, old fish--a bunch of senior citizens swimming together in schools."

The San Pedro fishing fleet is made up of 30 purse seiners that spend 95% of the time fishing in local waters primarily for bonito, mackerel and squid.

"These big fish have been good for fishermen and their families, good for the general economy of San Pedro and good for America's balance of trade," insists George Pisano, 60, one of the owners of the Sea Scout.

Pisano and several crew members aboard the Sea Scout have bought new cars with their money from the big fish. Anthony Tomich has been waiting years to fix up his house. Thanks to the fish he can now afford to hire a plasterer, painter and plumber to get the work done.

Owners of fishing boats have made reservations for dry dock space at the 90-year-old Larsen Boat Yard on Terminal Island and other boatyards in the harbor area.

'I Was Flabbergasted'

"A half dozen of the fishing boats are scheduled to come into our yard the next two, three weeks. It's a real bonanza for us. The boat owners are getting more work done this year than any year in the past. They can afford it because of the big tuna," noted Michael Iacono, 57, vice president of Larsen's, who added: "I went down to the United Food Processors Cannery to see those huge fish. I was flabbergasted. I have been around fish all my life. I have never seen anything that big in a tuna."

It has been three weeks since the last of the big fish were seen by San Pedro fishermen. Are there more out there? Says Sal Russo of the Tooter:

"As a fisherman I believe there are. We see certain fish because of cycles, because of plankton on the ocean and water temperatures. Conditions out there, unknown to us, brought these fish here. We hope there are many more of them and they will continue to show up in our local waters."

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