Shaping the Shoreline, by Connie Y. Chiang

December 25th, 2009

Shaping the Shoreline: Fisheries and Tourism on the Monterey Coast, Connie Y. Chiang, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

There is always tension between the fishing and tourism industries. The tourists like to have a bit of the industry atmosphere (scenic boats at anchor) but not too much atmosphere (no smells). The industry generally curses the tourists, but recognizes that visitors play an important role in sustaining the local economy, which often means  not being able to find a parking spot near the dock.  When the two industries collide, as they have done in spectacular fashion in Monterey, California, over the last century, it can make for not only interesting history, but insightful marine policy.

Connie Chiang takes a look at the two industries, from the days of 1879 when Robert Louis Stevenson extolled the “spectacle of Ocean’s greatness,” to the present, where the Monterey Aquarium draws millions of visitors a year to its site on an old sardine cannery. It’s easy for the industries to be critical of each other, but as Chiang points out, the development of both industries show how deeply entangled social and environmental histories can be. Each industry jostled for control over the coastline, seeing it as a commodity that could be controlled and marketed to consumers. The two industries are far more entangled that they might seem, and they have more in common than initially meets the eye.

The first immigrant fishermen at Monterey were the Chinese, who arrived in 1853 to harvest abalone. They soon expanded to harvesting kelp, rockfish, cod, halibut, squid, and shark. Some of the fish were dried, and the smells brought complaints from the Pacific Improvement Company, set up in the mid 1890s to market the bay to private landowners and tourists. The company built the swank Hotel Del Monte, the “Queen of American Watering Places.” Fishing and tourism were both firmly rooted in the community.

The fishing side got a boost from the state in 1868, when it conferred leased title to the shorefront, and a second boost in 1900s when a Norwegian, Knut Hovden, arrived and organized the sardine industry. Educated at the National Fisheries College in Bergen, Hovden worked in Liverpool and other cities as a fisheries engineer and technician. He started a salmon smokehouse at Kalama, Wa., then traveled to Monterey and went to work modernizing the industry.   The canneries could process more fish, placing demands on fishermen to bring in more sardines. The Italians, primarily from Sicily, dominated the sardine fishery, but there were also Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese working on the waterfront. With the need for protein during World War I, the sardine fishery was the largest in the U.S.  Production boomed—and so did the smells and the conflict with the tourist industry.  But the tourists were also dumping untreated waste into the bay’s waters, drawing the concern of scientists. As Arthur McEvoy detailed in The Fisherman’s Problem, state scientists warned the sardines were being overfished; federal scientists supported the industry in arguing the fluctuations in the catch were not a cause for concern.

Chiang provides a useful chapter on the role of fisheries during World War II, a subject that is well worth investigating, since federal actions played a large role in the decline of sardine stocks.  The government thattook over production, setting high quotas for canned sardines.  At the same time, it ordered the removal of the Japanese fishermen and cannery workers. The larger fishing boats were requisitioned for military shore patrol. The 1946 season was a disaster

In the middle of the dispute was a local scientist, Edward F. Ricketts, who ran a biological supply house. In 1940, he and his friend, the writer John Steinbeck, chartered a Monterey seiner, the The Western Flyer, and mounted an expedition in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Based on Ricketts’s writing and journal, Steinbeck published Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, in 1941. Steinbeck followed with Cannery Row, written in 1945, based on the sardine fishery and the eccentric characters that lived in the community. The literary landscape soon replaced the real one. The tourists thronged to Monterey but Cannery Row was a ghost town; the sardines had gone.

Cannery Row Square, a shopping mall created out the former canneries, opened in 1972, a sign of the transformation of the waterfront from industrial center to tourist destination.  As Chiang writes, despite the absence of sardines, city planners “endeavored to make the name and legend of cannery Row an enduring physical reality along the coastline,” (153). When the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened in 1984, 30,000 people gathered for the celebration and the aquarium proclaimed, “The Fish are Back.”

The aquarium revised Cannery Row by re-creating the bay and enclosing it in acrylic panels.  It was built on the site of the former Hovden cannery, where “this vestige of industry enclosed a place where mostly white visitors of comfortable means encountered nature and expressed their environmental values,” (156).  The success of the aquarium brought a new set of conflicts between residents and visitors. “Whereas the cannery processed sardines for a wide range of consumers, the aquarium transformed marine life in order to provide a stimulating educational experience for mostly white, well-heeled tourists intent on combining their leisure activities with their green values. Nature was a vital resource in both the cannery and the aquarium, but the aquarium packaged it in a different form, to different ends, and for different people,” (181).

In 1999, California Fish and Game biologists reported that the sardines were indeed back. A quota of 204,844 tons was set for 2000, but most of the fish were landed at Moss Landing.

As Chiang points out in her conclusions, it is increasingly easy to reinforce the oversimplified dualities in describing the human interactions with the natural environment. As this important and well-written book shows, the interactions are complex and subtle, and an understanding of the history is vital to understanding the present.

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