NANTICOKE’S TUNA PLANT
(early 1950’s magazine article by William Stump)
TUNA – fat, meaty fish weighing as much as 70 pounds – are returning into Maryland waters by the thousands this winter.
They’re running up the Chesapeake and into the Nanticoke – aboard a sea-stained refrigerator ship called the Rumba that was built in Scotland, sails out of Callao, Peru ,flies the Costa Rican flag, is manned by Peruvians and is captained by a skipper named Antonio Roberto Janssen.
Four times a year at various Peruvian ports as many as 400 tons of silvery tuna, tuna caught by fishing vessels off Peru, are frozen solid and loaded into the Rumba’s deep sub-zero holds. Then the stubby motorship heads up the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal and north to the village of Nanticoke – the location of a growing new Maryland industry.
That industry is the large-scale canning of imported tuna, and it is new to the East Coast as well as to this state. It was pioneered in Nanticoke, by a packing house now canning thousands of cases a year.
“You know, it still sort of surprises us that we were the first to think of canning South American tuna,” says H. B. Kennerly, Jr., manager of the firm he owned with his father.
“It surprises us because Maryland and the mid-Atlantic Coast are hundreds of miles closer than California to the South American fishing grounds – and 90 per cent of the California-packed tuna, and that’s most of the tuna Americans eat, comes from those grounds. Besides, we’re a lot closer to the markets.”
The Kennerlys’ tuna adventure began in 1946, when the war-nourished demand for their canned herring and whitefish fell off sharply. “One day Dad came back from New Jersey with a few albacore,” Mr. Kennerly recalls. “We didn’t know what this fish was. Then we discovered if was a species of tuna, and we began to pack it.”
But the Kennerlys found out that albacore and the other Atlantic species were not available if sufficient quantities. Hence, the coming of tuna “in the round” from Peru. And hence, the coming of the Rumba, now in its second year of delivering the fish.
The Rumba makes the 18-day, 2750 mile voyage to Nanticoke only in the cool months, so as to keep the tuna from spoiling during the unloading. She is 165 feet long and 500 tons in gross cargo weight. She anchors about two thirds of a mile offshore.
Upon her arrival, the junior Mr. Kennerly, a man whose eyes light up when he talks about fish, pays a visit to the vessel. He is greeted by Captain Janssen, who commands a crew of nineteen officers and men, including refrigeration experts who keep the holds at just-below-zero temperatures.
The captain, who wears an American baseball cap, is descended from a Norwegian grandfather who settled in Peru in the last century. Like his ancestor, he has followed the sea since boyhood, and has served on merchantmen all over the world. He looks forward, he says, to the Nanticoke voyage – one reason being that among the customs men posted aboard, he can usually find a chess player.
“On my ship, only the mate, Oscar Mujica, can play this game,” says Captain Janssen. “And ones tires of the same competition.”
When the formalities are completed in the Rumba’s tiny cabin, Spanish-speaking sailors open up the hatches, displaying ton upon ton of stiff-frozen tuna, glistening under a coating of ice crystals. Occasionally, big burlap-packed slabs of swordfish are in the cargo; these are immediately shipped north.
Soon a 50-ton lighter is tied up alongside and the Negro cannery workers jump aboard, greeting the sailors with Spanish words learned on previous trips. Then a donkey engine lowers a cargo net into the hold, and the workers fill it with the fish, shouting Arriba! the Spanish word for “up”, when the net is ready.
When the lighter is loaded, it is towed to Nanticoke. There, Edwin Schoenrick, a retired State Department official who served in South America and who volunteered his Spanish and his services to the Kennerlys when the Rumba first put in, supervises the shifting of the cargo to trucks, which take the fish to a huge freezer building near the cannery.
It sometimes takes a week to unload the Rumba, and the task requires most of the cannery personnel. So it is not until the vessel leaves – its crew members laden with American movie magazines – that the packing begins.
But the tuna will not be ready to eat for a week after packing, and it will be even better after a year, for, like whisky, it improves with age.
“We pack 75,000 cases a year, which comes out to 1,800,000 pounds,” Mr. Kennerly says.
“That’s a lot of fish, and it doesn’t all come in on the Rumba; we receive much of it by regular cargo ships that dock in New York and Baltimore.
“Of course, we’re nowhere near approaching the production of California, which puts up over 8,000,000 cases a year. But the industry is growing here in the East – there’s another plant in Maryland at Tilghman Island – and the Californians are worried. It’ll be a lot of fun to see what happens in the future.”
UPDATE (not part of the original magazine article) – The tuna plant was subsequently used by Coldwater Seafood until they moved to Cambridge when Wicomico County refused to make Nanticoke a deep draught harbor that would facilitate them receiving the large boats from Iceland with frozen fish. Then it was used as a chicken plant by Otis Esham. It lay idle for a couple of years and then was operated as another chicken plant by a co-operative known as Champion Chicken. When they went out of business in the late 1970’s, the whole 5 acres along with the building and equipment was sold at auction by the government for the paltry sum of $68,000. I know this because I was at the auction. The stainless steel processing equipment and a refrigeration unit on the roof was worth three times that. The freezer on the north end of the property was dismantled and reused in North Carolina. Showell Poultry bought it and it is now a vacant lot owned by Perdue by way of them purchasing Showell. Many people have eyed the property as prime real estate for condominiums overlooking a beautiful harbor but after many years of seafood and chicken plant operations the land will not perk for clean water. So – it sits.