The modern tuna industry in the United States actually began as the sardine industry.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the pungent little sardine was more popular than tuna which, at that time, was considered a ‘nuisance’ fish. In 1903, Southern California canner Albert P. Halfhil’s catch of sardines in San Pedro Bay dwindled. Halfhil faced a cannery brimming with empty sardine tins and had to figure out a way to fill them.
The enterprising Halfhil began packing his empty sardine cans with albacore tuna. Mr. Halfhil discovered that albacore tuna “turned white and tasted delicious when steam cooked”. America agreed. Halfhil sold 700 cases in that first year and by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 production had reached 400,000 cases.
The First World War marked a critical period of growth for the industry. American doughboys in Europe required a convenient, portable, protein-rich food, and canned tuna proved a perfect solution. To meet the booming demand, commercial fisherman who had originally fished the coastal waters off Southern California expanded northward and westward.
By the late 1930s, the fleet expanded to the waters off the Pacific Northwest and ranged several hundred miles offshore. With this increased supply of various tuna species, by 1954 the United States had become the world's largest producer and consumer of canned tuna products.
In 2000, the industry began introducing a range of innovative new products and packaging including vacuum-packed pouches. Consumers embraced the new packaging which was easy to store, open and clean up. In the last few years, U.S. processors have also introduced new marinated tuna flavor products.
Throughout its one hundred-year history, the U.S. canned tuna industry has responded to the changing needs and tastes of the American consumer. And America’s love affair with canned tuna has continued as Americans enjoy almost 1 billion pounds of canned or pouched tuna each year.