Tuna Capital of the Philippines: Living History

Nobody will ever dispute  that General Santos City is the Tuna Capital of the country.  This is by no means just a simple tag line.  It has history to go along with it.  This is where the Philippines’ tuna industry was born.  In and out of this place, too, the Philippines became a major player in the global tuna production and international trade.

More than 30 years after the accidental discovery of vast tuna resources swimming in abundance within a stone’s throw of the shores of Sarangani Bay, tuna is still the lifeline of this continually progressing port city.

From the ignored and sometimes avoided denizens and delicacies of the sea, the delectable tuna – especially the big mature yellowfin variety – has become a major component in the daily lives of residents here. Every single resident who has been living here since the 70s must have a relative or two working in the more than 200 tuna-related companies here. Many people are engaged directly or indirectly in the tuna business. In fact, find me someone who does not at least have a relative working in the tuna industry, and I will treat that person to a dinner of grilled fresh tuna belly bought directly from the city’s sprawling fishport complex.

Marfenio Tan (more popularly known as Marfin), who saw the local tuna industry evolved and developed from a subsistence municipal fishing to a multimillion dollar global business, recalls how big yellowfin tuna catch for the day would only sell for P0.25 per kilo. Yes, that is 25 centavos per kilo. (The day before his article was written, the price of sashimi-grade tuna was P360 per kilo). And nobody ever thought then of buying a 60-kilo yellowfin tuna, as only a few households had refrigerator. But then again, have you ever tried stacking your fridge with a whole tuna – loins, head, tails and all? Chances are nobody has ever done that. You would rather buy vacuum-packed frozen tuna steak cuts and frozen tuna bellies at your nearest convenience store.

But in the glory days of abundance in what was then Dadiangas village of Buayan town  (before this place became General Santos), there were no ice plants, much less cold storage facilities, to keep your quick histamine-producing tuna. Fish vendors ended up cutting them into loins and selling them in the wet market. The majority of these, however, are left unsold and ended up preserved in salt as tinabal – something with virtually no commercial value at all.

Today, the best tuna catch of the day are flown directly to the tables of the posh restaurants in Beverly Hills in California, USA or in Tokyo, Japan – within 24 hours of landing at the General Santos City fish port complex. Today, too, only a few in the city could honestly say that they have eaten the same quality of sashimi-grade tuna that the ritziest people in Japan and elsewhere in the world gladly empty their pockets for.

Accidental industry Tan said the tuna fishing didn’t blossom into a full-fledged industry until the late 70’s and early 80’s.

He proudly says he was part of its growth and even its discovery. While walking into a local hardware store here in search for spare parts of his converted boat engine, he was asked by its owner-friend what kind of fishes they were catching and whether these included tuna.  At first, both Marfin and his friend could not agree which tuna they were referring to, as different tuna species have different local names. Quick solution? Show them the real thing. Marfin showed him one frozen yellowfin tuna and a two-kilo skipjack. His friend was impressed. Marfin was introduced to a Japanese buyer who immediately dispatched a 300-ton refrigerated ship to the city all the way from Zamboanga. In three weeks, Marfin and his fishermen friends were able to fill the ship – taking much less than the agreed-upon 30-day period to load the ship with tuna.

By the mid 2000s, the Philippines became the second largest exporter of canned tuna products.FOTO BY EDWIN ESPEJO

By the mid 2000s, the Philippines became the second largest exporter of canned tuna products.

Word quickly spread when the ship arrived in Japan.  A week after, Ricsan also moored its refrigerated ship off the waters of what is now the water treatment plant across the General Santos City public market today.  In less than a month, pineapple giant Del Monte Philippines followed suit by sending its own ship.  A month later, General Santos City-based Dole Phils, Inc. also began buying tuna from local fishermen.  This was in the early 70’s.

By the early 80’s, two of the country’s tuna-canning plants, Purefoods and RFM, had already established factories here.

As they often say, the rest is history. The General Santos Fishing Port Complex, the country’s most modern and a symbol of the tuna industry’s economic importance, was built in 1997 via a grant from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Tuna Capital General Santos City however did not get its moniker as the Tuna Capital of the Philippines until the turn of the century when the Philippines officially became the second biggest manufacturer of canned tuna products with the addition of four more canneries. As a result of the phenomenal growth of the tuna industry, too, the Philippines also  became the third-largest tuna catchers in the world.

Entering its 14th National Tuna Congress in a row this year, the tuna industry grew almost exclusively by itself with little government support, its growth largely fueled by the dictates of the foreign and international market.  Demand grew. So did production.  Tuna companies, which grew from just four or five in the early 70’s to more than 200 of them today, fished in frenzy until the Celebes and Sulu seas could no longer land them the required volume.  Tuna producers looked elsewhere to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Palau for fishing grounds.

Catch of the day will be on the tables in LA in less than 24 hours. Photo by Edwin Espejo.Fresh-caught tuna has been a source of international trade, economic and diplomatic concern for the Philippine government. The Philippine government, egged by tuna producers, began holding bilateral talks and eventually secured separate agreements with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In 2002, the Philippines government was forced to dip its hands and split hairs in trying to obtain favorable trade agreements for locally sourced tuna products culminating in the near collapse of the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar when then Trade Secretary Mar Roxas III threatened to walkout if the country’s tuna products will not be given tariff and duties reduction and preferential treatment.

At the same time, the city government began claiming General Santos as the country’s tuna capital.

Nobody protested and the moniker has since become the industry’s most identifying tag line.

Next time you come across the tagline, think of it as more than one. This is more than just a marketing slogan. This is history.


Note: A lesson well learned in Europe and the States, hopefully the philippines will take this lesson on its own experiance and take care of the Industry and the Tuna of course.



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