1937 Narooma fish cannery opens

Narooma fish cannery. Image: State Library of NSW

The Narooma Fish Cannery was opened at the suggestion of Theodore Cleveland Roughley, an economic zoologist from the Technological Museum, Sydney. In a newspaper interview, Roughley described how the industry began. He had been big game fishing with the American author and adventurer, Zane Grey, when he learned that large shoals of tuna (then called “tunny” in Australia) visited the south coast from September to December each year. Roughley wrote about the canning potential and an industry expert expressed interest.

However, the seasonality of the tuna run presented an economic difficulty. The solution was to extend the canning operation to salmon and the first Narooma Fish Cannery was soon operational. Roughley names a W. Smithson as the operator of the cannery.  However, a 1938 report in Smith’s Weekly tells of the investment made by Tom Newman. Newman’s Narooma Fish Canning Company was, in that year, experimenting with canning tunny, salmon, mullet, snapper and mackerel.

Initially, there was difficulty with canning the salmon, as the local variety could prove tough. This problem was solved by the penning of salmon for a period before canning. Before long, Newman’s company had orders for five million tins of salmon. The local product proved more than competitive with imported canned salmon, retailing for 7 pence per one-pound can.

But it was tuna that offered the greatest potential. The Land reported in 1947 that:

Perhaps the most tasty pack being developed is tinned tuna. This fish, which is known in America as “the chicken of the sea,” is found in the Coastal waters below Sydney. The canning of tuna in America is a vast industry. Connoisseurs who have sampled the South Coast tinned product declare that it is equal to the world’s best. American merchants are already displaying a keen interest in the Australian tuna experiments and it perhaps is the one canned fish which may command a profitable export market.

In 1940, another fish cannery began operation at Eden, 135km to the south, focusing on locally caught tuna. In 1949, the operation was taken over by Greens Products, also of Narooma, and the local tuna-fishing industry expanded.  Kraft purchased the factory from Green’s in 1961 and sold it on to Heinz in 1974.  At one point, as many as 40 tuna boats operated out of Eden. The brand, Greenseas Tuna, was the first to boast dolphin-friendly credentials.

But the good times didn’t last. The Narooma fish cannery so depleted the salmon stocks that the operation became unviable and it closed within two decades. The Eden cannery, concentrating on tuna, had a longer life. But by the late 1970s, tuna numbers had also been radically reduced.  Competition from Thailand undercut the locals and processors moved offshore.  Heinz closed the Eden cannery in 1999.

Today, none of the tuna you buy in the supermarket is canned in Australia.

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