Campus News

Chiang Discusses Cannery Row Research

Story posted November 21, 2002

What is more delightful than a walk along the beach, with its pristine sandy shore and sounds of crashing waves and calling birds? A fresh breeze blows in from the sea and invigorates you as you dip your feet in the surf and a salty spray hits your face.

A walk along the beach in Monterey, California, during the early part of the 20th century might not have been so aesthetically pleasing. Blowing in the wind or just hanging in the air were a variety of odors that might variously be described as tainted, filthy, nauseous, repulsive, or just plain smelly.

These were the days of Monterey's bustling Cannery Row, the site of the area's booming sardine industry, and thus the hub of the peninsula's ongoing "odor disputes." Monterey's odor disputes is the subject of research by Connie Chiang, the scholar-in-residence at Bowdoin's Coastal Studies Center, and adjunct lecturer in history. Chiang gave a talk titled "Of Sardines and Smells: Tourism, Industry and Environmental Nuisance Along Monterey's Cannery Row" at a recent faculty seminar.

The Monterey, California, of the late 19th century was an elite tourist destination, attracting moneyed tourists from up and down the coast and from across the country, Chiang explained. Throughout the tourism industry, Monterey was promoted heavily as a genteel coastal resort, with the luxurious Hotel Del Monte and golf course as its crown jewel.

As the 20th century dawned, two smelly disputes tarnished the sterling image of the area.

The first dispute, prompted by the practice by Chinese fisherman of drying squid on racks on the outskirts of town, was resolved quickly following complaints.

The second dispute, involving the sardine industry, proved much more complicated. It resulted in decades of arguments, injunctions, ordinances, lawsuits, and protests.

The disputes centered on the area famously called "Cannery Row." According to Chiang, with the tourism industry going head to head with the sardine industry, the question became, "Who has the rights to the coastline?"

And what would its identity be? Would Monterey be an industrial fishing port attracting blue-collar laborers? Or a luxurious tourist destination attracting affluent society?

Early on, lines of battle were drawn between the Del Monte Hotel and the sardine industry. Del Monte guests came to the resort to make use of its outdoor recreational amenities and enjoy its clean beaches. Meanwhile, the sardine industry dumped all its fish remains into the sea. All those fish heads, bones and waste then washed up on shore to the revulsion of the tourists--who began to leave the resort, or just stay away in the first place.

Eventually, the sardine industry started processing fish by-products by reduction, and sold the materials for such things as fertilizer. By 1917, five fish processing plants had sprouted up on Cannery Row. While garbage barges were no longer dumping fish offal into the sea, a new odor problem had been created. The plants were emitting fumes into the air that many found to be revolting and sickening. The city was spurred to pass an ordinance to deter the plants from emitting these fumes, but the ordinance was virtually unpoliceable.

Tensions grew worse between the tourist industry and the sardine industry.

According to some, the sardine business was destroying the tourist trade, doing "irreparable damage" with visitors being "poisoned by the odor of dead fish," and the "beautiful surroundings ruined by the horrible stench."

More odor abatement programs were developed through ordinances, licensing, limits, and the requirement of deodorizing equipment. Meanwhile, more canneries were opening: totaling 13 in 1934, and 23 by the mid-1940s. While some considered these canneries to be a "public nuisance," others saw them as a boon to the economy, employing thousands of people and generating tax revenue.

In addition to ruining tourism with every shift of the wind, the sardine industry was responsible for depreciating land values, claimed the Del Monte group and some residents.

The sardine industry countered that they represented a huge benefit to the 15,000 residents of the Monterey Peninsula and their economy. Their point was valid. While stench is subjective and impossible to quantify, the sardine industry was booming, not only weathering the depression, but flourishing during that time.

As more lawsuits cropped up, the sardine industry maintained a defensive tack, but also developed a strategic offense. They dismissed the hotel's complaints calling them "merely aesthetic," and a problem only for the "supersensitive," the "elite interlopers." They turned the tables on the Del Monte by claiming sewage discharge from the hotel polluted the beaches: "Tourists cause odors, not canneries!"

In 1934 the Del Monte claimed a legal victory, as very stringent regulations for the fisheries were passed. All the canneries were required to sign the new agreement and follow the regulations. All signed, with the exception of one, which claimed the canneries were "odorless"!

Claims of a great improvement to the odor problem were widely disputed by residents and tourism officials. The nearby community of Pacific Grove threatened legal action against its neighbor Monterey. But ultimately the residents of the area were willing to tolerate the smells and keep the canneries operating.

The odor was far less repulsive than unemployment. In 1937 residents of Pacific Grove circulated petitions to end the town's own lawsuit.

Still more canneries were built after World War II.

But after decades of cultural, environmental, economic, and legal wrangling, the tempest created by the odor disputes died away in the late 1940s.

The odors disappeared. Not because the tourist industry's or the residents' complaints were taken any more seriously or developed more clout.

The odors disappeared because the fishing business overwhelmed its resources, the sardine industry collapsed, and the canneries closed.

Following her presentation, Chiang offered an ironic footnote to the story. Since the 1950s, the Monterey tourism industry has celebrated and romanticized the very industrial past it had previously fought so hard against.

Cannery Row has become a marketing campaign aimed squarely at tourists.

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