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NEARLY TWO CENTURIES OF FISH CANNING : AN HISTORICAL LOOK AT EUROPEAN
EXPORTS OF CANNED FISH
João Ferreira Dias, ADETTI, ISCTE, Lisbon, Portugal
Patrice Guillotreau, LEN, University of Nantes, France
It has been recently reported that the major canned fish found in international trade –tuna- was first canned in 1903
in southern California. This US-centric view regrettably omits the important foreign trade of canned fish products
borne as far back as the late 1820s in Europe, birth place of this long-lasting industry. On the basis of archives and
time series on landings, foreign trade data and the number of canneries in France and Portugal, it seems interesting
to develop an historical look at this important worldwide industry through various events having affected the level of
trade (depletion of natural stocks, wars, colonies, international investment, industrial concentration, etc.).
Sometimes, such historical events may be as important as the classical economic factors to explain the dynamics of
foreign trade. Prior to many other manufactured goods, the fish canning industry has been hit by globalisation a long
time ago. This historical approach provides an opportunity to discuss the present time and future of the European
fish canning industry.
Key-words: fish canning industry, history, international trade, investment
Examples of industries surviving across nearly two centuries of history without any major change in the
technological process are not commonplace. This is the case of the fish canning industry. Borne with the French
discovery of Nicolas Appert in 17951, this industry has not ceased to exist two centuries after the invention of this
technical process which preserves food products for several years. This successful story is certainly due to the
simplicity of the industrial process along with the low opportunity costs of processing low-valued fish species such
as pelagic blue fish.
The industry has first appeared in France, where the invention was discovered , before settling down in many
other countries (United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Algeria, USA, Japan, Morocco…). Although Anderson’s
book about the international seafood trade () remains of valuable interest by many aspects, it fails to consider the
pioneering development of the European canning industry and its involvement in the international seafood trade: “In
1844, Kensett started the first large-scale oyster canning operation in Baltimore, MD. Canned oysters are considered
to be the first canned seafood to receive broad distribution.” (, p. 9). This opinion is shared by other US authors
(, p.3). Of course, these authors acknowledged that oysters had long been processed by the same Thomas
Kensett and Ezra Daggert as early as 1812 (, p.8), but these experiences were not developed to the level of a
large-scale industry2. Indeed, it is reported that “tin containers for packaging processed food were first used in the
1840s” and that “sardines were first canned in Maine about 1850” (, p.3).
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the first sardines were packed in metal cans in Nantes (France) before 1822
by Joseph Colin3 (Journal de Nantes et de la Loire Inférieure, June 8th, 1822). Very little is known about the latter,
except that soon after his first attempt to use the invention of Appert, he set up in Nantes an important canning
factory in 1824 which failed by bankruptcy 15 years later. This cannery was able to produce at its peak in 1836
some 100 000 tins (out of which 36 000 of sardines represented approximately, with 250 g each tin, 9 tonnes in
overall4). Canned sardines were not the only product coming out of the factory where 30 workmen (ferblantiers)
were dedicated to the production of metal cans for further processing of meat, salmon, vegetables and fruits packed
by some 300 women in high season. As far as sardines are concerned, the process was described as follows :
1) After reception of fresh sardines, the women clean them and cover the fish with fine white salt.
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2) After a few hours, the fish is gutted and its head cut off after that the fish has been washed again. The fish
is laid down on a grill and dried by the wind or the sun in order to obtain a better shine and to avoid
deterioration when it is deep fried.
3) The fish is fried in boiling vegetable oil and drained off. Fried sardines are then displayed in metal cans and
put on tables covered with vegetable oil. The welders seal the tin cans and put them into the autoclave
(pressure-cooker) for sterilisation.
It is interesting to note how little this process has changed in the course of time. Of course autoclaves have been
made safer and the containers have been substantially improved (materials, easy opening system), but the production
process by itself is very similar.
THE FRENCH PARTICIPATION TO THE INTERNATIONAL TRADE OF CANNED FISH IN THE 19TH
International trade of canned fish products represented a logic outlet for such durable goods, but its emergence is
reported to have taken place rather lately: “the major canned fish found in international trade, namely tuna, was first
canned in 1903 in southern California” (, p. 9). However, in other books, international trade of canned fish is
mentioned at a much earlier period of time: “by 1860 a substantial market had been created for French sardines in
the United States” (, p.8). Indeed, several historical factors had pushed the French canning industry to export a
large proportion of its production to North America by the mid 19th century (figure 1). From 40 tonnes exported as
early as 1827, 400 tonnes were exported in 1844, when Kensett started its oyster canning factory in the US, and
French exports of canned fish reached at their peak 17,000 t in 1879.
% of total exports
% export of canned fish to North America Exports total canned fish (tonnes)
Figure 1 Exports of French canned sardines and north-American share 1827-1879
Source: Statistiques officielles des Douanes, Ministère du Commerce et de l’Industrie
Three reasons appeared as determining factors of growth for the international trade of French canned sardines in the
mid 19th century: the universal Exhibition of London (1851), the discovery of gold mines in California (1848-1853)
and in Australia (1851), and the implementation of a new railway between Nantes and Paris (1851) .
The London Exhibition represented the first universal exhibition in history and was followed by the Paris Exhibition
of 1855 where a lot of industrial fish processors attended. Some of the French managers even participated to the
1853 Exhibition in New York. The gold rush of the mid-century attracted seekers from the whole world to
California, seeing canned sardines as the most convenient food to take away and preserve for a long time so far from
the cities. It is perhaps not so strange that some 50 years later, Booth started to can “the abundant Monterey Bay
sardine”, launching in 1900 the important Californian sardine industry (, p. 8).
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By the mid-19th century, canned sardines were still considered as a luxury good5, but the purchasing power of the
US diggers was big enough to afford it. They even could pay for an extra 40% ad valorem tariff duty. In 1851, a
similar gold rush in Australia produced the same effects on the development of French exports of canned sardines:
1050 million of Francs-or were sent from Australia to Europe between 1851 and 1855 (, p. 80). Finally, the new
railway between Angers and Nantes on August 20th 1851 achieved to link Nantes and Paris and the harbour of
Nantes itself was connected to the railway network on the 1st of January 1854.
These three combined factors boosted the level of exports that grew up at the steady growth rate of 26.7% per
annum in quantity (and 28.8% in value) between 1847 and 1856 (Ibid, p. 91). North America represented the most
important share for French exports, either directly (80% as early as 1832), either through the United Kingdom who
increased fivefold its imports of canned sardines from France between 1852 and 1853 and re-exported them to the
US market, explaining the sudden and sharp decrease of the US-French trade from that period (figure 1). The war of
Crimea in 1854-55 stopped the exports to Russia but new markets appeared and exports reached new records in
1857 with 5236 tonnes.
An economic crisis hit the industry at the same period, rapidly followed by the first reduction of natural stocks in
France. Simultaneously, the Civil war began in the USA (1860-1865), thus decreasing the demand for French
canned sardines. From that time, even though exports may have increased for some periods, the canning industry
turned preferably towards the domestic market , hence a growing two-way trade with the imports of foreign
products (figure 2).
1800 1820 1840 1860 1880 1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000 2020
Export s (T) Imports (T)
Figure 2 French exports and imports of canned fish (logarithmic scale)
Source: Statistiques officielles des Douanes, Ministère du Commerce et de l’Industrie
THE BOOM OF THE SARDINE CANNING INDUSTRY IN PORTUGAL
One could still read in the report of the international Exhibition of 1867: “The good canned fish is rare; they are well
produced in Nantes and along the Ocean where powerful canneries stand. (…) Out of all the species, the canned
sardines are the most commonplace, they represent a genuine French specialty. There is nowhere in the world a
place that this good does not reach, for it becomes essential to consumers. It has been tried elsewhere, in Brazil, in
Spain, in Italy; such more or less successful attempts cannot fight against the production of our country” (Michel
Chevallier, cited in , p. 109-110). This self-satisfactory viewpoint has been denied by the development of a large
Indeed in the Paris Exhibition of 1855, the canned sardine presented by Feliciano Rocha won several awards
recognizing the high quality of his products (ADS-FAC 18/1; Setubalense, 2/12/1951). In 1854, Feliciano Rocha
and Manuel Neto created a fish cannery using for the first time the Appert method in Portugal (ADS-FAC 18/1,
65/2). Disagreements between the two men caused the split of the firm into two plants the same year. This
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observation by Maria Quintas (2004), working on the Almeida Carvalho Archives (ADS-FAC), challenges the usual
hypothesis that the creation of the Portuguese canning industry was done by a French company, namely the F.
Delory company, in Setubal (Portugal) on November 16th 1880 (, p. 54). By the time there were several sardine
canneries in Setubal that exported their products mainly to Brazil and the African colonies (ADS-FAC 18/1, several
documents). French firms are not the founders of the Portuguese canning industry but helped its development with
technological transfers and direct investment. The shortage of sardine in the Brittany by 1880 is the main reason of
the French investments in the Portuguese canning industry. Many French companies followed the pioneering
experience of Delory, such as Ogereau Frères, Chancerelle, Amieux and others (report of the Paris International
Exhibition of 1889, p. 164). This transfer of capital was so important that a French chamber of commerce was
created in Lisbon in 1887 (, p.54). A transfer of technology could also be outlined between France and Portugal at
this period of time. In 1891, some 50 welders were sent to Portugal by the Société Métallurgique de Nantes (tin
manufacturer), setting up a sort of labour aristocracy. Indeed, one of the first strikes ever occurred in canneries was
led by welders in June 1897 in the Julien Company . French capital and knowledge transfers to Portugal caused
the change of the activity from a small-scale (phase 1 in Figure 3) to an industrial organization (phase 2 in Figure 3).
Plants Canned Export (Ton)
Figure 3 Portuguese exports of canned sardines
Sources: Own elaboration from several Portuguese official documents (see references)
The reasons for this important shift of comparative advantages were given as follows: “in Spain and Portugal, fish
harvesting give large and constant yields, greater than those obtained in most of the French fishing zones; the
catches last more or less all the year long, ten or eleven months a year near the strait of Gibraltar; sardines are sold at
very low prices. To compete efficiently against so favoured competitors, our manufacturers had to settle on their
rivals’ grounds. As a result, one could number only three manufacturers of Nantes who have no factory or interest in
the Iberian Peninsula…” (Bouchon-Brandely 1889, cited in , p. 143). The above mentioned simplicity of the
technical process has permitted a rapid development by imitation. In 1884, Portugal counted 18 canneries and Spain
around 40; two years after, 66 factories were operating in Portugal .
In 1887, half of the canned sardines imported in France came from Portugal, replacing gradually the imports from
the French colony in Algeria which represented the whole trade in 1879. Some 40 years later, the Portuguese leader
Salazar himself, by then Minister of Finance, wrote a study on the national fish canning industry and foreign trade.
His idea was to support publicly the development of exports in order to pull out the domestic industry: “if we want
to stabilise or to increase exports of canned fish (…), we cannot depart from the domestic fish consumption to
develop fishing, from fishing to develop the canning industry and from the canning industry to develop exports. The
other way around is the natural way” (, p.8). By 1912, Portugal was the top worldwide exporter of canned fish.
This country started to supply Spain and Brazil and gradually extended its influence on the European markets,
selling canned sardines to England, France and Germany, tuna to Italy and Spain. This specialisation remains today
after more than a century. One could say that Salazar played a significant role in this expansion because two Law
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Acts of 1932 set up the Consorcio Portugues de Conservas de Sardinha, which became later the Consorcio
Portugues de Conservas de Peixe and finally the Instituto Portugues de Conservas de Peixe. After a peak of
production in 1967 with 74,000 t, the output of canned sardines has dropped to an average 50,000 t for the last 25
years. This product represents one third of the Portuguese seafood exports in value.
TWO IMPORTANT FISHING CRISES AT THE TURN OF THE 20TH CENTURY
In France, the major changes in the foreign trade of canned fish occurred after two severe depletions of sardine
stocks at the turn of the 20th century. The first sardine crisis began in 1880 and ended up in 1887. All the ports
hosting fish canneries saw the landings of sardines declining sharply during this period. A look back at figure 2
shows the impact this decline has had on the imports of foreign canned sardines which grew up by 159% between
1880 and 1887. This kind of depletion is typical of migratory species like sardines. Every year, the warm equatorial
waters push away the colder and polar waters, fostering the migratory transgressions of the scombrid and clupeid
stocks. The shoals may disappear for a while by diving deeply into the sea in order to lay6, but the oceanic
transgressions may also result in migratory moves of the sardine stocks .
This is one of the hypotheses to explain that sardine stocks can disappear for several years in some areas. Other
explanations, more or less serious, are suggested. The wind may push the eggs away from the sea shore. It was
mainly coming from the west in the abundant years of 1978-79, but turned to East for the two next years of scarcity
(, p.52). The temperature also appears to play a role, as shown above, and sardines often disappear after a hard
winter. The fishermen believe that cetaceans like belugas may represent efficient predators competing with them for
the fish. Experts have other hypotheses: sardines would be very sensitive to electricity and volcano eruptions, or
even to orientation changes of marine streams (Ibid, p. 51). None of these is thoroughly confirmed and the chaotic
dynamics of the sardine stocks keeps its part of mystery.
The second crisis was more severe and took place in the early 20th century between 1902 and 1908 and between
1911 and 1914. The average landed tonnage dropped from 32,300 t yearly on the period 1894-1901 down to 12,900
t over the period 1902-1913. As a result, the average cost of sardines doubled during this period. This period of
crisis stretched the localisation of the industry to the south (in the Basque region) and boosted the Spanish and
Portuguese exports to France. French imports of canned fish have increased from 2,000t per year in the period 1894-
1901 to 8,900 t in the period 1902-1913.
This second crisis has definitely positioned France as a net importing country of canned fish. The trade balance has
not ceased to deteriorate since 1911, with a slight improvement due to decreasing imports before the Second World
War. Many canneries closed down and the overall number of factories started to decrease at the same period of time,
contemporaneously with the aggravating factor of World War I. In 1917, exports were forbidden in order to secure
the domestic market.
In Portugal, the emergent industry was very little affected by the periods of sardine shortage (1894-1895; 1902-
1908, etc), which were noticed in the newspapers and parliamentary debates, though not observable in statistics.
Indeed, till 1927, fish landings data are scarce and not reliable, because the attention was only focused on values for
tax reasons. By 1912, Portugal was the first world producer and exporter of canned fish. The canning industry had
grown in explosive form to account for some 400 canneries in 1925.
PROTECTION OF THE DOMESTIC INDUSTRY
The protection of a national industry by tariff and non-tariff barriers can rarely stop the decline of this industry in the
long run. Curiously, the first sardine crisis and the resulting growth of imports did not push the government to
increase the tariff duties, at least at the beginning. On the contrary, in 1881, the tariff charged on French imports was
reduced from 31.20 FF per 100 kg to 10 FF, in spite of the domestic claims. As a comparison, the French exports
were charged with an extra duty of 60-95 FF to the USA (replacing the 40% duty of the mid-19th century), 75 FF to
Germany and 73.25 FF to Russia (+10% after January 1st 1881) (, p. 163). Why has this tariff reduction been
implemented in the late 19th century context of European protectionism? Presumably, this reduction took place at the
beginning of the first sardine crisis, i.e. with no previous experience of stock depletion and with the mere objective
of satisfying the national demand. The Custom Law Act of 1892 changed substantially this policy by increasing the
tariff from 10 FF per 100 kg to 25-30 FF (Ibid). The domestic supply of the market was preserved with this new
measure and the national manufacturers asked the government to keep this regulation in force.
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During the second crisis, the Act of July 11th 1906 protecting the canned sardines against smuggle raised the tariff
level from 30 to 50 FF per 100 kg, but with a limited impact on imports because the most important supplying
countries were not subject to this measure. Spain still had a 25% duty and Algeria as a French colony kept outside
the regulation. Portugal, hit so far with the maximum tariff, benefited temporarily from a bilateral agreement but a
new rise of the tariff reduced by twice the level of French imports from this country between 1907 and 1911.
Nonetheless, in 1912, the price of the French sardine tin of 250 g fetched a price of 0.80 FF, against 0.50 FF only for
the Portuguese tin. The 50 FF tariff duty per 100 kg equalled to an extra 0.125 FF cost per tin, thus not
countervailing the comparative advantage of Portugal (Ibid, p. 242).
The July 1906 Act not only increased the French tariff barriers, but it also prohibited the imports of sardine tins
heavier than 1kg, imposed the producers to report the origin of the goods on the tin cans and prohibited those
“foreign commodities introduced in France or packaged with French brands or labels” (, p. 55). This was due to
the important imitation of French brand names used by the Iberian manufacturers: L’Hirondelle, Le Glouton, Les
Savoureuses, La Renommée, L’Aigle d’Or, Le Faisan d’Or… (Ibid, p.54). In spite of all these protectionist
measures, Figure 4 shows how much the trade deficit had grown up in France since World War I.
Interestingly, the European producers of canned sardines have kept on fighting in 2000-2002 against the labels used
by foreign products, like the name of sardines used by the Peruvian Sardinops sargax or the Venezuelian Sardinella
aurita exported to Europe. The European producers want to maintain CEE Reg.2136/1989 that restricts the use of
‘sardine’ to the sole Sardina pilchardus Walbaum. The Peruvian producers obtained the authorisation of the World
Trade Organisation to sell the Sardinops sargax as “sardines”, in respect with the Codex Alimentarius which
encompasses in this category herrings, anchovies, sprats, sardinops and sardinellas. One century ago, in 1896, the
Syndicat des fabricants de conserves de Nantes took several smugglers from New York to a US court because they
were re-selling small herrings under the name of sardines and using French origin labels such as Douarnenez or
Nantes (Chambre de Commerce de Nantes, exposé des travaux, 1896, p. 83).
In Portugal, the problem was seen in the opposite side, since the country was top World exporter. Between 1854
and 1927 there was a steady increase of canned fish exports with an explosion of small plants. Many of the small
Portuguese canneries produced either very low quality products or high quality products with French brands
(including those of French owners settled in Portugal7). The French laws about quality and conformity of the canned
fish product were strictly enforced. A process of reforms started, but was interrupted by the first war, to the large
benefit of Portugal. Between 1914 and 1924, exports increased by 190% in quantity, despite unstable markets –
strong decreases in the UK, Germany and Brazil and increase in France).
The first war postponed a crisis caused by the excessive number of canneries and inefficient industry rules. The
crisis was aggravated by the protectionism of importing countries, mainly in France, that imposed import quotas,
increased the customs duties, and create incentives for consumers to discriminate against foreign products8. An
agreement between Portugal and France was finally signed up on March 30th 1934 (Diario Governo, 74/1934).
During the decade 1924-1934, the Portuguese exports collapsed by 23% in quantity and 30% in value. The
architecture of the new Portuguese canning industry was designed by Salazar himself , and implemented by the
Ministers of the Industry and the Sea, like Sebastião Ramirez and Henrique Tenreiro. The New State political
doctrine of Salazar was based in a strong government, a corporatist industrial organisation and protectionist rules,
but without the direct presence of the State as producer or trader. Laws 21621/1932 and 21622/1932 created the
institutional framework where the producers association - Consorcio Portugues de Conservas de Sardinha- was
entitled to regulate, monitor and control the quality and conformity of production and exports of canned fish. Until
1940 time was devoted to organisation and industrial discipline (phase 3 in Figure 3). Exports and production
remained more or less stable in quantity but with better prices, in particular obtained by the Civil War in Spain
(1936-1938).The neutrality of Portugal during the Second World War benefited to the industry not so much in
quantity (greater volatility and a peak of 61,000 Tonnes in 1941), due to problems of logistics, but more in average
prices (140% higher).
The end of World War II caused a natural reduction in the canned production as well as in the fishing activity, but
less than ten years after the activity had fully recovered. Between 1954 and 1965, exports increased by more than
30% in quantity to reach 82,000 tonnes in 1965. During this period two apparently contradictory political measures
were taken by the Salazar government: limitation for the creation of new plants (Lei do condicionamento industrial9)
and the adhesion (with restrictions) to the European Free Trade Association in 1960. The shortage of sardines and
the recruitment of young people to fight in the independence war in the Portuguese colonies caused a sudden 20%
cut in the exports level at the end of the sixties. The political revolution of 1974 resulted in deep changes for the
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economy: big strikes, loss of Portuguese colonies, state intervention in the industry and the openness to external
investors, like Heinz and Ebro. More important in its effects, the integration of Portugal in the EEC had positive and
negative consequences for the canneries. The main positive one was the access to European funds for the
modernisation of the industry; the main negative ones were the low level of tariff duties applied to Morrocan canned
sardines10, the increased bargaining power of fishermen, and the imposition of standardised safety rules.
THE DIVERSIFICATION OF THE INDUSTRY TOWARDS NEW SPECIES
Between the two Wars, France experienced a new growth of its canning industry through a diversification towards
new species. The canning of North Atlantic tuna or Albacore (Thunnus alalunga) had started as early as during the
first sardine crisis. “Then appeared a linkage of substitution between tuna and sardines processed by the canning
industry: in a period of shortage of sardines or whenever they become more difficult to sell, tuna can be substituted
to a certain amount. That was observed in L’Île d’Yeu in 1867” (, p. 185). The price of tuna may dropped from a
year to another when sardines were available in large quantities, showing this substitution effect between the two
species. Tuna at that time was canned in vegetable oil and was consumed as a luxury good (the price was twice that
of canned sardines in 1868); tuna “au naturel”11 has only appeared in 1936.
But this species really developed during the second sardine crisis of 1902 and after World War I. Between 1920 and
1930, canned sardines still represented 60% of the output of the French canning industry, falling down to 37% in
1937. Albacore and red tuna were not the sole responsible for this fall, since mackerel can be caught all along the
French coastline during spring and summertime. These species suited all the more easily as sardines met poor
fishing campaigns (around 16,000 tonnes yearly between 1919 and 1927). The economic crisis of the 1930s and
World War II stopped dramatically the development of the French canning industry (see figure 2), but the industry
knew a new departure in the 1950s with the discovery of important tropical tuna fisheries in the waters of the former
colonies (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire).
After a few exploratory and experimental fishing campaigns between 1948 and 1954, the Breton and Basque
fishermen, followed by the Spanish fleet, went down massively to Dakar for fishing during the following winter
seasons. In 1956-57, some 87 long-liners were numbered in this area, catching 13,000 tonnes of tropical tunas
known as Yellowfin (Thunnus albacares) and skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis). In 1964 were launched the more
productive purse-seiners, increasing substantially the level of catches: 21,000t in 1965, 33,000 t in 1970, 48,500 t in
1975 (figure 4). The European fleets were staying all the year long or so in the African ports and some joint-ventures
were created in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire with French capital . The tremendous growth of skipjack and yellowfin
catches had nothing in common with the levels reached by the canning industry so far with sardines, albacore,
mackerel or anchovies. After the full and stable fishing effort in the East-centre Atlantic, the first fishing campaigns
started in the West Indian Ocean by the early 1980s, with the first significant tonnage of 16,000 t obtained in 1983.
One year after, a great deal of effort was transferred from the Atlantic to the more fishy grounds of the Indian Ocean
because catches in the latter went up from 16,000 tonnes in 1983 to 65,000 t in 1984 while those in the former
dropped down from 57,000 t to 20,000 t during the same period of time (Ibid, p. 413). Some experimental fishing
campaigns have been carried out recently by the French fleet in the Pacific Ocean where the natural stocks of
skipjack and yellowfin tunas are still under-exploited. No doubt that some processing facilities would be created
thereafter if the catches are satisfactory.
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Sardines Albacore (Thunnus alalunga) Tropical tuna (skipjack+yellowfin)
in the Indian
First campaigns of skipjack
and yellowfin in centre-East
Figure 4 Catches of sardines and tuna by French* vessels, 1886-2002
Sources : Bulletin statistique des pêches maritimes and Orthongel
* Landings of sardines and Albacore in France; catches of tropical tuna by the French-owned vessels (including those fresh and
frozen tuna landed in African ports)
After the emergence of the African tuna fishery and before the independence of the former colonies, the major
European canneries have settled processing units overseas, close to the fishing grounds. Between 1955 and 1957,
four French companies (Pêcheurs de France, Guyader et Guichard, Cassegrain-Saupiquet and a group of 5 Basque
canneries) invested in new subsidiaries in Senegal. Other independent units joined them, increasing the competition
for the raw materials. The leader Saupiquet, also present in Morocco at the same period, took over one after the
other all these companies but Pêcheurs de France. This presence in Senegal has lasted well beyond the independence
of the country, until 1988. In 1971, Saupiquet set up a new factory in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire). Besides Saupiquet
and Pêcheurs de France, a third group (Pêche et Froid) created in 1966 its own units in Senegal, and grew up in Côte
d’Ivoire in 1978. These three major groups formed for a very long time an oligopoly on the French market of canned
tuna. Their activity in France or Africa was supported by two important logistic companies transporting and selling
frozen tropical tuna (respectively Cobrecaf created in 1965 by André Delhemmes in Concarneau, and its subsidiary
In the 1980s, a similar strategy was followed by those companies chasing new natural resources in the Indian Ocean.
In 1987, Pêcheurs de France set up a new factory in the Seychelles Islands (Conserverie de l’Océan Indien Ltd),
with the partnership of the local government. In 1989, Pêche et Froid invested a lot of money in a big processing
plant in Madagascar. Saupiquet imitated the two others only in 1996, with the launching of two large purse-seiners
equipped with processing facilities onboard producing tuna loins. The US leader Starkist (Heinz group), last
company to join the French oligopoly after purchasing 36% of the shares of Cobrecaf in 1978 and the cannery Paul
Paulet in 198712, has also important canneries in Ghana (Pionneer Food Company) and in the Seychelles Islands
where the company has settled in the late 1990s  .
The consequences of this direct foreign investment are easy to imagine: a decreasing number of canneries remained
in France and an important two-way trade of frozen and canned tuna took place between France and the former
colonies (see figure 2). Almost all the fish caught by national vessels were landed in the overseas ports, hence being
registered as exports, and processed thereafter before being re-imported. Less than 20% of the fish was processed in
France. On the other hand, the major part of canned fish is marketed into Europe, either from France or Africa. For
instance, in 1994, some 160,000 tonnes of frozen tuna were landed in African or Thailandese ports and, after
processing, represented about 80,000 tonnes of canned fish imported in France. Together with the 35,000 tonnes
domestically produced, the fish was sold either in France (85%) or in other European countries (15%) .
Nowadays, the imports of whole frozen tropical tuna in France are close to zero (only the frozen cooked tuna loins
are imported for further high-value processing) and international investment frames the geography of trade flows.
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One could wonder why this important re-allocation process did not occur in Portugal? The first Portuguese-owned
cannery in Africa was nonetheless created in Moçamedes (Angola) in 1914 by Miguel Almeida . Its name was
“Fabrica Africana” and it exported various products –canned fish, meat and vegetables - to other Portuguese
colonies, to the neighbour Belgian Congo as well as canned tuna to Italy (the largest customer with 482 tonnes in
1932) and France (127 tonnes in 1933).
The main reason is political. The New State doctrine of Salazar had a paternal view of the industry. The
organisational and technological innovations that could cause social troubles were restrained or not favoured,
including investments abroad and migration of people to the colonies13. Mainly concerned with the survival of the
Portuguese Empire, Salazar tried to plan an international division of labour within this empire. For instance, wine
production was not allowed outside Portugal, and the same for sugar production inside Portugal. Only after 1961,
when the independence war began in the African colonies, big investments were decided, including for new
canneries, but this was too late! The dictatorship remained until the revolution of April 1974 and the ancient
colonies plunged into destructive civil wars. Consequently for the recent period, the depletion of sardine stocks,
along with competition from other countries over canned sardines, could not be compensated by a diversification of
the industry towards tuna species, explaining the rapid decline of the Portuguese industry and trade for the last three
Sardines Tuna Lin閍ire (Sardines)
Figure 6 Catches of sardines and tuna in Portugal 1927-2002
Sources: IPCP, DGPA
FOREIGN TRADE OF CANNED FISH AND THE PRODUCT CYCLE THEORY
The last period starting with the discovery of the tropical tuna fisheries in the 1950s has seen a tremendous
concentration of the industry whose number of canneries fell down sharply from 175 in 1954 to 14 in 1998 (before
slightly increasing in the recent years to reach 18 in 2002). A relationship between the number of canneries and the
level of foreign trade for canned fish can now be established across the whole period from the very beginning of the
industry to its latest development (figure 6).
If the number of companies reflects somewhat the evolution of the market until World War II, the dynamics of trade
fits remarkably with the product cycle theory of Vernon . This theory tells that a new product in the early phase
of development is rather exported by the innovating country, before imitation by new low-cost producers when
products are standardised. Then, the companies originating from the innovative country must invest directly in the
lower-cost territories in order to compete efficiently, thereby creating a two-way trade, at least for a while. The
IIFET 2004 Japan Proceedings
international investment increases as the comparative advantage of the competitors gets bigger, and the trade
balance may plunge into deficit. This strategy was adopted by the French manufacturers in Africa and in the Indian
Ocean, whereas the US industry did the same in Puerto Rico and American Samoa Islands.
One difference could nonetheless be outlined between the historical development of the fish canning industry and
Vernon’s theory. Usually, the imitation comes from less developed countries as the innovating country is losing its
technological advantage. As a result, a two-way trade of differentiated products takes place between the developing
country exporting the low-technology good and the advanced country which imports this good and exports the new
high-technology product. In the present case of canned fish, the comparative advantage does not shift because of
technology, but due to factorial endowments in natural resources, in line with the Heckscher-Ohlin view. Speaking
of national comparative advantages is somewhat misleading because the major part of the capital is still owned by
French-based companies14, not by local owners.
Estimated nb of canneries Nb canneries Exports Imports
First sardine crisis
crisis 1902-1911 WorldwarI
1914-1918 Worldwar II
Exploitation of tropical
tuna fishery 1957 - …
gold mines in
Figure 6 Number of canneries in France and foreign trade of canned fish (tonnes, log scale) 1822-2002
Own elaboration from different sources (National customs, FAO, Eurostat, FIAC, )
This is one major peculiarity of fish products. The specialisation process is limited by the endowment in the natural
factor. As Brander and Taylor  pointed out in a general equilibrium model of seafood international trade, the
country which specialises in open access fishery products may lose in free trade with another country specialised in
manufactured goods. Looking back at the French canning history, it looks as though the sharp trade growth of
canned sardines in the mid-19th century has pushed the industry beyond the maximum sustainable yield, resulting in
two major harvest crises. After the loss of this comparative advantage, the national industry has only been able to
recover when new resources were found in the former colonies in the mid-20th century, just before the independence,
thus creating a new inflexion point with tropical tuna products on consumption markets. In the meantime, new
competing countries have emerged in international trade with a stronger position in former products (mainly canned
sardines). In 1997, 271,000 t of canned fish were produced in Europe, of which 50% in Spain, 28% in Italy, 14% in
France and 8% in Portugal.
In the two phases of international investment, first in the 1880s-1900s in Portugal and Spain, secondly in the 1950s-
1980s in Africa and the Indian Ocean, new trade flows have been created. However, if a national industry has
rapidly developed autonomously in Southern Europe, this has never been the case in Western Africa or in
Madagascar where the capital is still largely owned by multinational companies. Even the fish stocks are bargained
IIFET 2004 Japan Proceedings
within bilateral agreements between the European Union and third countries, and managed by international
commissions driven by European interests15.
One of the reasons behind this difference may rely on the tremendous concentration by mergers and acquisitions,
setting up a high entry barrier for newcomers. The share of the top-4 leaders in Portuguese canneries was 57% for
canned sardines and 78% for tuna in 1998. In France, the same concentration ratio is undoubtedly higher and
productivity has increased five-fold for the last three decades (less than 1000 t per firm in the early 1970s to more
than 5,000 t in 2000). African investors cannot afford such a high entry ticket in the industry, both for vessels and
processing units. However, what have become the joint-ventures created in the early development of the European
 Anderson, J.L., 2003, The international seafood trade, Woodhead Publishing Ltd, 222 p.
 Appert, N., 1810, Le livre de tous les ménages ou l’art de conserver pendant plusieurs années toutes les
substances animales ou végétales, Barois l’aîné, Paris.
 Barbosa Pinto, A.M., 1941, Sobre a indústria de conservas em Portugal, Império, Lisbon
 Brander, J.A. and M.S. Taylor, 1997, International Trade and Open Access Renewable Resources: The Small
Open Economy Case, Canadian Journal of Economics, 30, p. 526-552
 Caillo, J., 1855, Recherches sur la pêche de la sardine en Bretagne et les industries qui s’y rattachent, V. Forest,
Nantes, 96 p.
 Carneiro, C. Baptista, 1934, Conservas de peixe, Imprensa Nacional de Angola, Luanda (S.A. 11444/6V.).
 Charneau, D., 1989, La dynamique de la filière française du thon depuis 1945, internationalisation et
compétitivité, PhD Thesis, University of Bordeaux I, 470 p.
 De la Casinière, N., 2002, Sardines à la clé, Apogée, Rennes, 128 p.
 Dupouy, A., 1920, Pêcheurs bretons, E. de Boccard, Paris.
 Fiérain, J., 1978, La restructuration de la conserverie à Nantes, Centre de Recherches sur l’Histoire de la France
Atlantique, Enquêtes et Documents n° IV, p. 209-272.
 Guillotreau, P. and F. Le Roy, 2000, La guerre du thon, ou l’art d’élever les coûts des concurrents par
l’intégration verticale, Annales des Mines, coll. Gérer et Comprendre, n°62, December 2000, p.53-62.
 Lachèvre, Y., 1994, La sardine, toute une histoire…, Patrimoine Maritime, 253 p.
 Le Danois, M.E., 1951, Livre d’or de la conserve française de poissons, Union des Syndicats Français des
Fabricants de Conserves de poisson, 2nd International congress of canning, Paris, October 1951.
 Le Roy, F. and P. Guillotreau, 2002, Contester la domination des leaders de marché en changeant les règles du
jeu : le cas de l’industrie thonière française, Management International, vol.6(2), Spring 2002, p. 29-41.
 Libaudière, F., 1910, De l’origine de l’industrie des conserves de sardines, 1824-1861, Imprimerie Mellinet,
 Marie d’Avigneau, F., 1958, L’industrie des conserves de poisons en France métropolitaine, Thèse de
l’université de Rennes, Imprimerie Bretonne, 604 p.
 Martin, R.E. and G.J. Flick, 1990, The seafood industry, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York
 Odin, A., 1894, Histoire de la pêche de la sardine en Vendée et sur les côtes les plus voisines (1610-1880),
Revue des Sciences Naturelles de l’Ouest, tome V
 Salazar, O., 1931, Notas sobre a indústria e o comércio de conservas de peixe, Estudo do Sr. Oliveira Salazar,
December 7th, 1931, reprinted in 1953, Astoria, Lisbon, 45 p.
 Valente, V., 1981, As conserveiras de Setubal 1887-1901, Análise Social, 67-68-69.
 Vernon, R., 1966, International investment and international trade in the product cycle, Quarterly Journal of
Economics, May 1966, p. 190-207.
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1 The invention has been rewarded by a cash prize of 12 000 Francs in 1809 after that a call for offers had been
launched by Napoleon so as to obtain preserved food for his military campaigns. In 1804 Appert had his own plant
in Massy (near Paris), but it was destroyed ten years later by the war .
2 In the United Kingdom (Bermondsey), John Hall and Bryan Donkin had already preserved meat in tin containers in
1811, after that Peter Durand imported the process of Appert in 1810 and ordered them to use tin cans. As early as
1813, they became important suppliers of the Royal Navy (, p. 16).
3 As a matter of fact, his name was Pierre-Joseph Colin, son of Joseph Colin who was actually the first man who
applied the Appert process to sardines and died in 1815. His son shortened his name to maintain the confusion with
his father’s name (, p. 13).
4 By 1850, more than 3 million of tins (app. 750 tonnes) were produced in France (, p. 69).
5 Salted-pressed sardines produced by the curing industry had a wholesale price of 0.40 FF per kg in 1837 and a
retail price of approximately 0.90-1.00 FF/kg. The same year, the price of canned sardines reached 2.72 – 3.04
FF/kg in net weight, depending on the tin size. It proves that the two products belonged to separate markets.
6 The sardines require a temperature between +10 and +17°C to lay. The signal is the arrival of warm waters that
make the shoals dive in the deep sea.
7 In its bulletin of 31/1/1912 the Setubal Industrial and Commercial Association emphasised the importance of the
French legislation of 11/7/1906 that imposed the carving of the originating country on the cans. Many of the best
Setubal made canned fish products like those produced by Delory were traded as French ones. Delory was sentenced
by a commercial court in 13/2/1901 to pay a fine after a complaint of F. Jullien, another French firm established in
8 Only the French canned fish is served as starters in the first and second classes of the boats; the foreign canned fish
is for third class passengers, only (in Portugal Exportador, 1932, n°1).
9 L 2052/1952 of 24/11/1952, DL 39634/54 of 5/5/1954
10 When Portugal entered the EEC in 1986, Morroco enjoyed a free quota for their exports of canned sardines until
14,000 tonnes, a 10% duty between 10 and 20,000 tonnes and 25% above, and a duty-free rate for tuna; as compared
to Portugal who faced a duty-free quota of 5,000 tonnes for canned sardines, a 8.18% rate beyond and a free quota
for tuna until 1,000 tonnes with a 7.2 % rate beyond. These specific tariff duties applied to Portuguese by the EU
have gradually disappeared.
11 The recipe « Au naturel » is introduced in 1936 by M. Firmin Tristan, manufacturer in the Island of Groix
(Morbihan). The raw fish is put into the tin can and covered with brine before sealing and cooking directly inside
12 After a severe legal and financial fight in the mid-1990s, Starkist finally obtained the full control of Cobrecaf-
Sovetco in 1995, thus becoming leader of the industry .
13 Until the sixties, a Portuguese worker had to receive a job offer from a firm in the Portuguese colonies to go there.
14 As a matter of fact, the two most important French canneries, Paulet and Saupiquet, now belong to foreign
investors, respectively the US company Starkist (Heinz group) and the Italian company Trinity Alimentari (owned
itself by Bolton Group, a Dutch holding) after its acquisition of Saupiquet in 1999.
15 The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), whose headquarters are in Madrid,
and the Tuna Association of the Indian Ocean.