The southern bluefin tuna is prized by gourmets, particularly in Japan, where it is valued for sushi and sashimi. In Australia, most commercial tuna fishing operates from Port Lincoln, South Australia. Although some Port Lincoln fishers were catching tuna from small boats during the 1930s, the industry really got its start with purpose-built boats in the 1950s.
In 1944, a CSIRO scientist, Stanley Fowler, had seen large schools of tuna during a flight over the Great Australian Bight. Encouraged by the potential of the fishery and aware of the industry’s success in the USA, the Haldane family of Port Fairy sought advice from a boat-building company in Tacoma, Washington State, USA and began to build their own tuna boat. The boat, named Tacoma, was the first of its kind in Australia.
The boat was completed in 1951, with financial assistance from the South Australian Industries Assistance
Commission. A condition of the finance was that it would operate out of a South Australian port and, in consequence, the family moved to Port Lincoln. The Tacoma crew captured their first haul of tuna in 1953 – the first southern bluefin tuna to be captured in Australian waters using a purse seine net.
Results of the fishery were uneven until, in 1956, the South Australian Government sponsored a visit by American tuna fishing experts, Cris and Sverre Jangaard. The Jangaard brothers taught local fishermen the pole and line method of catching tuna and the industry never looked back. A fish cannery was established in Port Lincoln in the early 1940s and, with the arrival of the Tacoma the plant planned to double its capacity. By 1957 canned tuna was being exported to Britain.
Over the years, leading brands of tuna including Seakist, Greenseas, SAFCOL and John West were canned in Port Lincoln. When the cannery in Eden, New South Wales, closed in 1999, the Port Lincoln operation became the last to can tuna in Australia. Then, in 2010, the contract with Simplot (owners of the John West brand) ended as the company’s tuna canning operation moved to Thailand. Now no tuna is canned in Australia.
Tuna fishing at Port Lincoln continues but is now largely a ranching operation. Immature tuna are caught by the purse seine net method and transferred to pens where they are grown out to commercial size. Instead of going into cans, the tuna are mostly exported as entire fish fetching a premium in Japanese fish markets.