Nobody will ever dispute or disagree to General Santos City being the Tuna Capital of the country. This is by no means just a simple tag line. It has history to go along with it. It is in this place where the country’s 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 away from the shores of Sarangani Bay, tuna still is the lifeline of this continually progressing port city.
From the ignored and sometimes avoided denizens and delicacies of the sea, the delectable tuna – the big mature yellowfin variety especially – 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 and tuna related companies here. Or he himself must be engaged directly or indirectly in the tuna business. Find me one who does not have and I will treat him or her 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 ref 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 olden and 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 more cold storage facilities, to keep you quick histamine-producing tuna. Fish vendors ended up cutting them into loins and selling them in the wet market. Majority of these, however, are left unsold and ended up preserved in salt as tinabal – something that virtually has 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 can tell you they have eaten the same quality of sashimi grade tuna the ritziest people in Japan and elsewhere in the world would gladly empty their pockets.
Tan said the tuna fishing didn’t blossom into a full pledged 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 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 was asked if these included tuna. At first, both Marfin and his friend could not agree which tuna are they referring to as different tuna specie 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 – less than 30-day agreed period to load the ship with tuna.
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 early 80’s two of the country’s tuna canning plants, Purefoods and RFM, had already established their factories here.
As they often say, the rest is history as the General Santos Fishing Port Complex, the country’s most modern and symbol of the tuna industry’s economic importance, was eventually built via a grant from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development it was opened in 1997.
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 likewise 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.
By then, the industry was already becoming a major 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 Philippine government was forced to dip its hands and split hairs in trying to obtain favorable trade agreements for Philippine tuna products culminating into 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. It is history and it is more than just a marketing slogan.