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Chicken of the Sea: Time-tested tuna

Before it became a Navy town, San Diego used to be a tuna town. Nearly a dozen tuna canneries dotted the waterfront in downtown during the early 1900s, from 1911 through 1920.

Tuna fishing employed thousands of workers, on the fishing boats and in factories where it was processed and packed.

When consolidation happened in the next decade, the city was down to five canneries between 16thand 28th Streets, or “Cannery Row” as it was referred to, and one of them was Van Camp Seafood.

When San Diego fishermen began focusing on catching white albacore tuna, they claimed it tasted like chicken, so they began referring to it as “the chicken of the sea,” a phrase that caught on and eventually Van Camp changed its name to Chicken of the Sea.

Tuna canning flourished locally for decades, until factories were moved elsewhere or offshore, and Van Camp was one of the last to close its cannery in 1984, moving operations to American Samoa.

But San Diego's tuna companies have continued to hold sway in the canned seafood market, making rivals Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea two of the well-known canned seafood brands.

Consumers easily recognize Chicken of the Sea's popular mermaid logo, which is a key part of the company's brand identity.

Established in 1914, it will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2014, while the mermaid turned 60 this year. The company has changed hands several times and is now owned by Thai Union International, a seafood conglomerate and Thailand's largest seafood major, which bought the company in 1997 along with partners but became sole owner three years later.

It reportedly had revenues of $600 million at that time, but being privately held, the company did not disclose its current revenues.

Erin Mrozek, Chicken of the Sea’s consumer marketing manager, said it is either the No. 2 or No.3 player in tuna depending, on the region or the countries it is operating in, but leads in food service and specialty seafoods.

Bumble Bee, with nearly $1 billion in revenues, has the largest share of the overall seafood market, while StarKist, with an estimated $650 million in sales, owns the biggest chunk of the tuna market.

Chicken of the Sea has had many milestones over its long history, including being the first to introduce boneless, skinless canned salmon in 1984 and tapping innovative technology, such as the no-drain tuna in peel-and-eat cups in 2007 and portion-control cups, the following year.

A gourmet line of steak-like tuna made its debut last year. These and other novel items, like a line of frozen seafood, have done well.

But the market for canned seafood has remained flat for a while, despite innovative products that have helped improve sales.

"The shelf-stable seafood market has been on a decline for the last few years,” Mrozek said. “Our innovative items do boost sales, but haven't reversed the decline on a whole, so we're trying to educate consumers about the health benefits of our products and also reengage younger consumers in trying it."

The company's efforts to reach out to the younger generation received inadvertent help from pop singer Jessica Simpson, who famously asked her then-husband, Nick Lachey, on their MTV show whether Chicken of the Sea was chicken or fish.

Simpson helped introduce the brand to a younger demographic and made the brand more relevant to this new audience, Mrozek said.

"The company invited Simpson to its headquarters for a press event and coverage of the event was picked up by more than 750 prime time affiliates, nearly 10 national television shows and more than 22 cable shows for an audience of 38 million viewers," Mrozek said.

At the event, Simpson was surprised to discover that aside from tuna, the brand also included crab.

Tuna represents 70 percent of its business, followed by salmon with 20 percent and the rest consisting of specialty foods.

Today, while its corporate headquarters are in San Diego, a majority of its products are packed in Thailand. Tuna canning was relocated from American Samoa to Lyons, Ga., which is its only U.S. plant, processing half of its tuna.

The company employs about 100 people in town and another couple hundred seasonal workers in Lyons.

Mrozek said the bulk of its tuna fishing takes place in the oceans near Thailand, but it does source from all over the world.

In 2009, the company teamed up with its two industry rivals and formed the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, in order to switch to sustainable fishing practices and break the cycle of overfishing.

It’s been an uphill task, considering the companies source from fishing communities in far-flung areas. The initiative has been working on setting standards for bulk and fishing capacity, how many vessels should be allowed on the water at a time, and how to reduce their carbon foot print while increasing their yield.

"When you're working on a global collaboration, you have to get fisherman around the world (on board), but with 70 percent of tuna manufacturers participating, it makes it faster and we're also showing them the science of better fishing," Mrozek said. "In a couple of years, we can track the results of these changes."

Despite navigating some choppy waters, Chicken of the Sea does have an avid following with consumers who are part of its Mermaid Club, creating an active community that shares recipes and takes part in contests.

Mrozek recounted anecdotes involving mermaid fans.

"We've had members wear mermaid costumes on Halloween and send us pictures,” she said. “They take our products on trips with them, their moms used it and now they use it. They tell us how they're losing weight by using it. A pregnant woman ate it every day on top of ice cream."

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Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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