SIC 2091

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in cooking and canning seafood products such as fish, shrimp, oysters, clams, and crab or in curing seafood products by means such as smoking, salting or drying. It also includes manufacturers of seafood soups, chowders, stews, broths, and juices. Establishments primarily engaged in preparing fresh fish or shucking and packing fresh oysters in nonsealed containers are classified in SIC 2092: Prepared Fresh or Frozen Fish and Seafoods.

NAICS Code(s)

311711 (Seafood Canning)

Industry Snapshot

The value of U.S. canned fish and seafood industry shipments in 1999 totaled $1.016 billion, compared to $830 million in 1998. The value of shipments fell slightly to $938 million in 2000. The industry employed 5,127 workers that year.

Of the 14.8 pounds of seafood consumed per capita in the U.S. in 2001, canned seafood accounted for 4.2 pounds, reflecting a 10 percent decrease from 2000. For the first time in industry history, canned tuna consumption fell below that of shrimp, which became the most popular seafood in the United States. Per capita salmon consumption increased slightly between 2000 and 2001. During the same time period, consumption of both sardines and shellfish remained the same.

Background and Development

Fish curing is one of the oldest industries in North America. Even before permanent European settlements had been established, fishermen were harvesting cod and other species off the northeastern coastline of the American continent. Fish were preserved and prepared for marketing by salting. According to Roy E. Martin of the National Fisheries Institute, "As early as 1580 more than three hundred ships from Europe were salting cod in this area."

New England colonists depended on salted cod and smoked herring for food and as trade items. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cured fish products made major contributions to the economies of New England and eastern Canada. Disputes over fishing rights and restraints on trade contributed to the political climate leading up to the Revolutionary War. Martin, writing in The Seafood Industry, stated, "The English Parliament in 1775 prohibited the New England colonies from trading directly with foreign countries and prevented New England vessels from fishing on the banks off Newfoundland, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and on the coasts of Labrador and Nova Scotia where they had been accustomed to fishing. This restriction meant ruin to the New England fish-curing industry, and the edict was one cause of the Revolutionary War."

Another type of preservation, pickling, was also used commercially with fish and mollusk products through the 1800s. Pickled and cured fish products continued to be major industries until the processes were gradually supplanted by canning technology and by innovations enabling fresh and frozen seafood products to be delivered to inland markets.

During the early years of the nineteenth century, the first canned seafood products appeared in the United States. Initial offerings included salmon, lobsters, and oysters. Of these three, the most popular, and first to be canned on an industrial scale, was the Chesapeake Bay oyster. Canning technology enabled the sale of oysters to inland people who had previously been unable to purchase them. As canning technology improved, other products were added to the menu. Sardines, for example, were first successfully canned in Maine around the middle of the nineteenth century. As more products became available, consumer acceptance increased. The Civil War also helped the new industry gain favor by introducing many soldiers to canned products.

The 1860s saw the beginning and rapid expansion of canning operations for Pacific salmon. From a small beginning in California, salmon canners spread north into Washington and Canada. The first canneries opened in Alaska in 1878. The 1870s also brought the first menhaden (a type of fish from the herring family) cannery. It opened on Long Island in 1872. Canned fish cakes (cod and haddock products) were introduced in 1878. By 1880, other canned items included mackerel, clams, and crabs. U.S. production of canned products in 1880 was valued at $15 million. Finnan haddie (smoked haddock) was first offered commercially in 1890. "Salad Fish," canned flaked meat from cod and haddock, was introduced in 1898. Other turn-of-the-century products included pickled sturgeon, carp, and shark meat.

During the early years of the twentieth century, the sardine canning industry moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. Canneries sprang up in the Monterey Bay area of California. As sardine canning operations expanded, demand for fish exceeded availability. To help increase catches, new fishing methods were developed using a special type of net, called a lampara net. Lampara nets encircled entire schools of fish and yielded large harvests. Canners also continued bringing new products to American consumers. Items added during the early years of the twentieth century included shad, alewives (another member of the herring family), and tuna. The first commercial offering of tuna was made in 1909 by the Southern California Fish Company. Only albacore tuna was used, and the first year's production equaled 2,000 cases.

In the following decade many major participants in the U.S. canned and cured seafood industry were founded. Ocean Beauty Seafoods was founded in 1910, Ward's Cove Packing Company in 1912, and in 1914 Peter Pan Seafoods and Van Camp Seafoods were established. By 1915, only six years after the first commercial offering of albacore, California processors packed 237,265 cases. In the Monterey Bay area, the sardine cannery industry was well established and continued growing. In 1918 nine sardine canning plants in Monterey packed a total of 1.4 million cases.

The 1920s saw expansion of Pacific mackerel canneries and increased activity in the Alaskan salmon industry. By the end of the decade, 159 canneries were operating in Alaska. Improvements in cold storage technology enabled canners to receive and process larger quantities of fish. Refined fishing techniques developed during the 1920s helped fishermen meet ever-growing demand. Purse seines, a type of large net closed by a drawstring-like apparatus, were capable of dropping to a depth of 100 feet and enclosing an area 100 feet across. Newer boats were built to operate hundreds of miles offshore and carry up to 150 tons of fish.

Catches of albacore, however, began decreasing during the 1920s and tuna canners consolidated. In 1926 albacore catches plummeted. As a substitute, Van Camp Seafood Company offered yellowfin tuna and marketed it as "Fancy Light Meat Tuna." Sardine catches continued in large numbers and canneries prospered through the 1930s and early 1940s. Owners expanded operations by adding fish by-products such as poultry and livestock feed, fertilizer, and fish oil to their product lines.

During World War II the canning industry faced several challenges. Tuna boats were requisitioned by the Maritime Commission and by the U.S. Navy, primarily for use in delivering supplies. Fish harvests were reduced, as fishermen enlisted or were drafted into armed service. Antisubmarine efforts along the Pacific coast restricted fleet movement. And inside the canneries, labor shortages persisted, intensified by a governmental policy of moving Japanese workers to internment camps. Despite the problems, however, the war years proved to be profitable ones for tuna and other fish packers because of the heavy demand spurred by government requisitions for canned products to feed troops.

During the second half of the 1940s, sardine catches began declining and forced canneries, one after another, to close. By 1952 Monterey's sardine era had ended. Industry analysts have attributed the declining sardine catches to various causes including pollution, climate and current changes, natural fish cycles, and fished-out stocks. Although the 1950s saw the demise of many sardine canners, other segments of the industry prospered. Larger fishing boats traveled greater distances from shore, and some companies opened canneries in more distant locations. For example, in 1954, the Van Camp Seafood Company opened canning facilities in Pago Pago (Samoan Islands). The plant received fish from Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. It employed 600 people and averaged 145 tons of production daily. The modernization of fishing techniques continued to improve catches. By 1961 most commercial fishing vessels shifted from hook-and-line gear to mechanized purse seining. By the 1980s tuna fishermen were using seines measuring up to 4,800 feet by 702 feet that were capable of hauling 200-ton catches.

These large nets, however, drew criticism because the seines indiscriminately captured all fish swimming in a school. For reasons not completely understood, dolphins often schooled with yellowfin tuna, and reports of dolphin mortality increased. To help alleviate problems associated with dolphin mortality, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 banned the importation of fish and fish products caught in ways that posed excessive risks to ocean mammals. Another piece of legislation, the Boxer-Biden Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act of 1991 was passed to govern the conditions under which fishing operations could operate if their products carried a "dolphin-safe" label. In 1990 three major U.S. tuna canners, Star-Kist (owned by H. J. Heinz), Bumble Bee Seafoods, and Van Camp Seafood ("Chicken of the Sea" brand) promised to provide dolphin-safe tuna.

At the close of the twentieth century, the U.S. government, backed by several mainstream environmental groups, was poised to rescind the embargo on tuna caught by boats not adhering to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Current Conditions

U.S. sales of canned fish and seafood were largely on the decline in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Per capita seafood consumption grew from 14.6 pounds per head in 1997 to 14.8 pounds, although this growth was largely due to record levels of shrimp consumption. Per capita consumption of cured fish products remained steady at 0.3 pounds per person annually, but consumption of canned fish dropped from 4.7 pounds in 2000 to 4.2 pounds in 2001. While salmon consumption increased from 0.3 to 0.4 pounds between 2000 and 2001, tuna consumption dropped from 3.5 pounds to 2.9 pounds. Record consumption levels for canned fish occurred in 1936, when consumption reached 5.8 pounds per person. Cured fish had a record year in 1909, when per capita consumption was 4.0 pounds.

The reason for the 17 percent drop in canned tuna consumption in 2001 was twofold: lower import levels and the closure of two U.S. tuna canning plants. The best year for canned tuna was 1990, when per capita consumption was 3.7 pounds.

In 1997 Congress passed the International Dolphin Conservation Program Act. The Act sought to regulate the tuna industry so as to protect dolphins, which were often injured or killed when ensnared in tuna nets. In January 2000 the U.S. government announced plans to enact new regulations to meet international standards for protecting dolphins in Pacific Ocean waters. The regulations put into practice a new dolphin-safe labeling system. The special labels could be applied to tuna products if no dolphins were harmed or killed when the tuna were caught. In addition, the regulations allowed for the import of tuna products into the United States if the tuna had been harvested within the confines of the Dolphin Conservation Program Act.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest companies involved in canning and curing fish and seafood products was Trident Seafoods Corp. Trident, a privately owned company headquartered in Seattle, Washington, was founded in 1973. Trident operated as a vertically integrated harvesting, processing, and marketing company. Trident employed about 2,800 employees in the late 1990s and had five processing plants in Alaska and three in Washington State. A company spokesman estimated that the company's product mix in the 1990s was 80 percent frozen products and 20 percent canned. Trident's canned salmon was offered under several brands: Faust, Lily, Prelate, Rubinstein's, Sea-Alaska, Tulip, and Whitney's. In the late 1990s the company acquired Tyson Seafoods from Tyson Foods Inc.

Another leader in the canned fish and seafood industry was International Home Foods, Inc., the maker of Bumble Bee tuna, the second-ranked tuna in the U.S. The diversified company also produced other canned goods, including meat products and vegetables. In 1999 International Home Foods acquired the canned seafood operations of British Columbia Packers from George Weston Ltd., a Canadian company. The purchase included such brands as Clover Leaf and Paramount. Paramount was the leading canned tuna and canned salmon brand in Canada. International Home Foods had 1998 sales of $1.7 billion, up 39 percent from the previous year.

Other significant participants in the seafood canning industry were H.J. Heinz Co., which had the leading canned tuna brand in the U.S.—Star-Kist, Icicle Seafood International Inc., and Chicken of the Sea International. During the 1960s Chicken of the Sea was the largest canner of an advertised brand of tuna in the United States. In addition to its tuna line, the "Chicken of the Sea" brand included canned salmon products. "Chicken of the Sea" was the first to offer skinless/boneless canned salmon.

Further Reading

"Consumers Expenditures Survey." Supermarket News, September 1996.

"International Home Foods, Inc." Food Institute Report, 11 January 1999.

Martin, Roy E., and George J. Flick, eds. The Seafood Industry. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Murray, Barbara. "Lent Events Heat Sales of Fish, Canned and Frozen." Supermarket News, 15 March 1999.

National Marine Fisheries Service. Office of Science & Technology. "Fisheries of the United States—1998." Washington, D.C.: Fisheries Statistics & Economics Division. Available from .

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Americans Ate More Shrimp, Less Canned Fish in 1997." Available from .

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Shrimp Overtakes Canned Tuna As Top U.S. Seafood in 2001." Available from .

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

Warren, Brad. "Salmon Glut May Force Changes." National Fisherman, March 1996.

User Contributions:

Harvey Freilich
Fascinating story of development regarding the canned fish industry. I don't see a word regarding that industry's deceptive practice of "shrinking" their canned product to maintain or increase profits. As a canned goods and grocery Purchasing Agent from the sixties thru the eighties, I recognized the practice as rampant on supermarket shelves, and tried but couldn't fight it; regardless the FTC had an ordinance disallowing such practices. Star-Kist, Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea - all like companies reduced their content from seven to six and one-half, then six and one-quarter, six and one-eighth, to where they now can at six ounces. Regardless weight statements on the labels reflected [by law] the weight of product within, the label logos remained as before, as did the shelf selling-price; duping the public eye into not recognizing they were actually paying more for their canned fish product. The canned goods and grocery manufacturing industries have successfully "shrunk" the shelf-product almost completely [and still utilize the practice when necessary]. I just thought every once in a while a whistle should be blown to say, "Shame on You" for thinking that the public be damned, and full speed ahead on profits based on deception.

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