Fishing was once the center of Morro Bay life. Many water color paintings have been made of picturesque boats tied up at the dock. Over the years fish populations have changed. Scientists and fishermen argue over the numbers but it is clear that, for example numbers like the 2,000,000 abalone harvested in 1962 are no longer viable. Otters, elephant seals and whale populations are all higher than they were in the mid-twentieth century. Man has invented fishing technology that can bring big harvests but if unchecked can cause over fishing and push populations below sustainable levels. The ocean is a dynamic system and when one species thrown out of balance other populations rise and fall to take advantage. Today fishing is more regulated and there are fewer full time fishermen.
Former Telegram-Tribune and Fresno Bee photographer/editor Thom Halls has partnered with author and fisherman Barbara Stickel to produce an exhibit at the History Center of San Luis Obispo.
I’m pleased to announce a new exhibition of my photographs opening Saturday, December 4th, 2010 at the San Luis Obispo County Historical Museum, on the Mission Plaza in downtown San
Luis Obispo, Ca.
These vintage images, taken in the mid 70’s depict a rugged, individualistic lifestyle of the commercial fisherman, a lifestyle that has all but disappeared.
Researched by author Barbara Stickel, herself a fisherman, the stories behind many of the pictures now come to life in a new and exciting historical perspective.
The show opens this Saturday, December 4th with reception from 2 to 4 p.m. and runs through April, 2011.
If you are traveling on the Coast either that weekend or later in the Spring, please stop by and have a look.
Explore the danger, sacrifice and passion of our local fishing community in the 1970s, as illustrated by the photography of artist Thom Halls. The Catch: Stories of Local Fishermen opens on December 4 at The History Center of San Luis Obispo, 696 Monterey Street (open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. every day except Tuesdays).
The affinity group model of egalitarian shared decision-making is not found at sea. Before Jerry Seinfield turned the phrase into a euphemistic punch-line, being “captain of your own ship”, referred to someone at the helm making decisions for better or worse. Joe Giannini is an example of that independence.
A photo of Gianini from the files of the Tribune is in the exhibit.
This is the profile that ran with the photo October 17, 1972.
The man in the boat shoes will relax for awhile
By Jim Hayes
“Joe Giannini retire?”
The rough-hewn old fisherman spat reflectively over the stern of his double-ended Monterey boat into the oily iridescence of the bay.”
“I’d believe you sooner if you was to tell me Morro Rock was drifting out to sea.”
The word that 57-year-old Giannini, probably Morro Bay’s most widely known businessman and the stormy petrel who’s flown over its political seas for almost a quarter century, was stepping down, was greeted with the same kind of skepticism all along the waterfront — and up the hill in the bayfront city’ business district as well.
Said one merchant who’s known Giannini for years — and been on the opposites side from him in more political scraps than he cares to remember:
“Retiring? Don’t you believe it. Joe’s got something new up his fine Sicilian sleeve and I can hardly wait to hear what it is.”
No so, Giannini told the Telegram-Tribune this week. He’s made all the arrangements to turn Marine Service and Equipment — the unique ship chandlery he founded in 1958 at 1196 Market Avenue — over to his son, Joseph Jr., at the end of the year.
“I may come in for a few hours a day occasionally,” Giannini hedged, “but the business will be completely n Jody’s hands.
“After all, he’s been working here for 14 years. It’s a great responsibility for a 26-year old, but it’s a great opportunity too.
“For me,” Joe mused, “the same sort of opportunity came at 16, when I had to drop out of high school in Portland during the Depression to start my own produce business.”
Wearing his store uniform an open necked sport shirt, soft wool golf sweater, wash slacks and boat shoes, Giannini relaxed in the neat cubbyhole he uses as an office. It’s a private corner in a sort of mezzanine loft of the store that visitors can reach only by navigating a narrow aisle cluttered with seaboots, canvas sneakers and leather dress shoes.
Slowly twining and untwining his long fingers — hands strangely delicate for a man who earned his living for 20 years in the rough-and-tumble of commercial fishing — he began to reminisce:
“Sure, I remember the date. The first time I came into Morro Bay was Aug. 13, 1946. I’d been fishing the Arctic off Pt. Sal and we met a boat that was drifting with a broken drive shaft. He didn’t have a radio and we didn’t want to leave him alone out there. Maybe the Coast Guard would have missed him in the fog. So we took him in tow and brought him into the harbor. That was my introduction to Morro Bay: giving someone a helping hand.”
(The Morro Bay Joe Giannini still sees in his mind’s eye was a sleepy village of less than 1,000 people that sprawled down the slope to the remnants of the old Navy harbor in pleasant Mediterranean clutter. No Embarcadero. Few paved streets. No PG&E steam plant piercing the blue sky with its neptunian stacks. A pervading odor of fish.)
“After we docked I walked uptown to get a haircut. It was such a beautiful place — the natives were so friendly — that I asked the barber if he knew where I could buy a house. I did, I offered the owner $8,500 on the spot and that night I called my wife in Newport (Ore.) and told her we had a new home. Jody and my daughter Elaine were born right here.”
(The arctic, a 65-foot ex-schooner built in 1916, was Joe’s third boat and he and his crew of three were riding the tail end of the World War II shark fishing wave — drift netting the monsters for the valuable livers from which natural vitamins were extracted. In a single trip off Cape Blanco, Ore. Joe and his crew netted $30,000 worth of soupfins. But he says now: “I never was what you’d call a highliner, just persevering and sometimes awfully lucky.”)
Later, separated from his first wife and fishing the Arctic out of Pittsburg, Calif., he stumbled accidentally into the ship parts peddling routine that eventually became Marine Service and Supply.
“Every time I’d come down and see the kids,” he recalled, “I’d load the car with salmon gurdies or shackles or bolts for some guy who was fishing down here. There wasn’t any source of parts closer than Monterey in those days.”
Business was so good, in fact, that in 1958 Giannini went into it full-time. He sold the Arctic for $30,000 and put that cash and all of his shark fishing money into what he saw as primarily a diesel engine repair firm.
Today, Marine Service and Equipment does an annual gross in the $600,000 range and Giannini’s $150,000 – plus inventory in every sort of ship board supplies from wool socks to huge engines with four -figure price tags make him the “largest of the small independent dealers on the coast.”
More than half of his business is conducted by mail and phone, “shipping parts on an open ticket to fishermen I’ve never seen in places as far away as Ketchikan.” And at this time of year, with a pair of poor salmon and albacore seasons back-to-back, he’s quite likely to have accounts receivable — including grubstake loans to a veritable armada of old-time pals — that hit the $130,000 mark.
“My biggest failing,” says joe, swiveling around in his char to glare at a cardboard file bulging with due bills, “is that I can’t say no to anyone.”
The route from small time parts peddler to big time marine supplier has had its rock and shoals, Gianniini is quick to point out, “but it’s been maybe four of five years since I really worried about the business.”
What he does worry about is Morro Bay, the adopted home whose political and physical image he’s had a good share in creating. And it’s his sometimes one-sided love affair with that town that’s turned his bushy black hair into a thin whitecap of silver and put deep creases into a Chaplinesque face that only occasionally unfolds into a real laughing smile.
Joe is unhappy. And he is tired.
He’s unhappy with what’s happened to the town he sailed into 22 years ago. He’s unhappy with its growth, its bigness and what he sees as its decline into mediocrity. He’s unhappy with himself because he doesn’t feel that he fought hard enough — or wisely enough — to save the once quaint, colorful village.
It’s little wonder he’s tired: Joe Giannini has been politicking almost from the moment he set foot in that barbershop in 1946. In the early 1960s, he was in the forefront of the drive for incorporation.
“That looked like a rosy dream,” he recalled. “The steam plant cluttered up the landscape, but it gave us a tax base of something like $7,000 for every man, woman and child. Of course I was for it.
“Maybe that was wrong. We started with a water commission and a fire commission and a sanitary commission everyone worked for next to nothing — and overnight we built a bureaucracy with a $1.2 million budget.
Giannini saw some of the change from the inside. He ran for the Morro Bay City Council in 1968 and rode into the mayor’s seat on what’s etched in his memory as the crest of a 72 percent majority — 1,590 votes.
He was almost immediately involved in controversy, mostly with the expanding police department. The headlines on the already yellowing newspaper clippings tell the story:
“Gianninii claims police ‘whitewash’.”
“D.A. hits Giannini charges.”
“Giannini, mayor clash over new quarters.”
“Joe Giannini resigns post on Morro Bay City Council.”
Joe lasted a little longer as a member of the executive committee of the county Economic Opportunity Commission, which he quit in November 1970 with this typical parting shot:
“I firmly believe this commission, an agency spending federal funds, does not have the proper understanding of its duties. Emotions many times are the modicum for decisions.”
Giannini said he was deeply moved by working with the poor (his 18-month old brother died in his arms — perhaps of malnutrition — when he was 6 and his family was on an ill-fated sojourn in Sicily) but he couldn’t stand what he called the program’s staggering bureaucracy.”
(Portland-born, Giannini is a study in contrasts: a non-smoker since he tried one pack when he was in high school and a non-drinker since he gagged on a glass of muscat wine at the same age, he still manages to stay on cordial terms with commercial fishermen — a fraternity which often measures its heroes in terms of their alcoholic capacities.
(Another anomaly: though he’s obviously a man who puts service to his adopted hometown and native country far above any thought of personal gain, his querulous tirades at City Council and other public meetings have alienated him from even some of the people he sees eye-to-eye with on major community issues.
(Says one city official: “Sometimes I think Joe’s his own worst enemy. Not that he isn’t right a good bit of the time. But he’s just so damn positive. He starts talking about ‘principles’ and there’s no chance of compromise.”
In 1970, Giannini took a brief flyer in the newspaper business, buying the weekly Morro Bay Sun with his former bookkeeper Ralph Gunther as a partner. The partnership dissolved in a flurry of litigation after five months and Giannini sold the paper “for just about what I had in it” to a corporation headed by Paul Scripps.
“The paper wasn’t what I needed and I knew it,” Giannini said. “It really was just a case of trying to do someone else a favor.”
What’s the future hold?
“Well,” said Joe, tidying up the already neat office desk in front of him, “You can say that I have no intention of running for public office. That ought to encourage some people in this town.
“Of course, I’ll keep hammering away at the people I think are ruining Morro Bay: the realtors and the motel owners and the chamber of commerce.
“And my conscience won’t let me stop fighting thee City Council, which I think is being guided by a lot of small pressure groups.
“I might even come out for disincorporation. Or do you cal it unincorporation? The county supervisors couldn’t make a bigger mess of things than we’ve got now.
“But mostly I’m going to relax.”
One of the store’s four employees stuck his head around the door:
“Joe, there’s a fisherman out here with a check for $245 and he needs more stuff than that will buy. What’ll I do?”
Joe Giannini pulled a $100 bill from his pocket and shrugged his thin shoulders.
“Here, put this on his account. Give him what he wants. What’s everyone doing downstairs anyhow?”
“Do you think we’re all going into retirement?”
Joseph C. “Joe” Giannini died Sept. 14, 2009 from complications due to a fall he took a month earlier. He was 94. Joseph’s son Jody, died 2005 at age 56 he succumbed to a series of health problems. The Jody Giannini Family Dog Park at Del Mar Park bears his name.
Giannini Marine Service and Equipment, closed in 2006.