It’s the End of the Line for L.A. Harbor’s Chicken of the Sea Canning Operation
One of Southern California’s oldest industries will vanish this fall when tuna giant Chicken of the Sea International closes its San Pedro cannery. It is not only the last tuna cannery in the harbor, it is the last full-scale tuna canning plant in the U.S.
Chicken of the Sea officials said Wednesday they will close the San Pedro plant and lay off its 250 workers because the cost of doing business in California is too high and the tuna catch too small.
The country’s No. 3 tuna company, which was bought in December by a Thai food firm, will keep a warehouse at the port to distribute its tuna, which will be produced entirely at its huge cannery in American Samoa. That plant is being expanded to compensate for the loss of the San Pedro plant, which processes about 100 tons of tuna and salmon a day, about a tenth of the company’s total production.
“It’s tough right now to make any money in the tuna industry,” said Dennis Mussell, Chicken of the Sea president. “In San Pedro we’ve got higher operating costs. We can import tuna from other places, but it’s more expensive to do it that way.” The plant closing marks the end of an era for Los Angeles County, which at its peak had more than 18 canneries, providing jobs for 17,000 people, as well as the 2,000 fishermen selling them their catches. The industry was so critical to the local economy that Los Angeles County put a tuna in its official seal.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, however, fishermen and canneries began moving out of the harbor to lower-wage areas such as Samoa and Puerto Rico, leaving empty buildings behind on Tuna, Barracuda and Cannery streets. And shipping companies began moving in, taking waterfront property in which to stack their huge containers.
By the beginning of this year, the only canneries left were Chicken of the Sea’s tuna plant and a pet food cannery operated by Heinz, which has since closed and transferred its operations to Pennsylvania.
“Other [Southern California] industries have gone down,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., citing the collapse of aerospace and the oil business. “But this is the end of an industry in L.A.”
Thai Union Frozen Products, Heinz and others blame rising rents at the port as a factor in the industry’s demise. Union officials say there’s been no special attempt to preserve Fish Harbor, an area historically designated for fishing businesses, which is leased and managed by the Port of Los Angeles.
“We’ve had very little cooperation from the port commissioner,” said Herb Perez of United Industrial Workers, the union representing workers at the plant. “There hasn’t been a big enough attempt to keep them.”
Perez says the union is negotiating a severance package for its workers with Chicken of the Sea, but hopes somebody will step in and take over the plant, saving its jobs.
Rich Crews, vice president of Canners Steam, which provides steam for the cannery to cook and sterilize its equipment, said a sale of the facility would be unlikely unless Chicken of the Sea relinquishes its warehouse, a huge building with only 80 workers. The steam company, a cooperative owned by the companies that used to operate there, probably will go out of business, Crew says. Its board is meeting next week to discuss its future.
With most of Fish Harbor’s large fishing-related businesses gone, many believe the port will discontinue the area’s specially protected status. Port officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Thai Union Frozen Products acquired control of Chicken of the Sea when it bought out its Southern California fishing fleet operator partners, paying $38.5 million for the remaining 50% of the company. The three partners had fished the company out of bankruptcy in 1997, paying $92 million in cash plus a $5-million note.
With annual sales of $400 million and market share of 19%, according to A.C. Nielsen, Chicken of the Sea is the nation’s No. 3 tuna maker behind No. 1 Star-Kist, which closed its plant in the harbor decades ago, and the Bumblebee Seafoods division of ConAgra foods, which still operates a small canning facility in Gardena.
“We’re obviously very distressed at the disruption we’re causing 250 families, but we had to make this difficult decision,” Mussell said.