Prior to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week becoming a summer ritual and way before Jaws‘ theme music was unnervingly burned into our collective psyche, there was a time when sharks were famous along the shores of Santa Barbara for much more money-minded reasons. During the bloody trials and tribulations of World War II, shark livers-desired by the military for their super-charged levels of vitamin A-became a delicacy of such high demand that per-pound prices of the once seldom sought fish increased more than 100 fold in less than a year. No dummies to the bottom line, fishermen followed the cash and quickly made the shark fishery the number one moneymaker from 1941 to 1943, the three wild years that forever changed the face of the Santa Barbara waterfront.
According to such legendary salts as Ralph Hazard, Red Allen, and George Castagnola, shark fishing in the Santa Barbara Channel during the 1930s was mostly overlooked and not too financially compelling for the fast-growing ranks of commercial fishermen, though some sought soupfin shark. Back then, the shark catch was used mostly for oils, leather dressing, and soap, and the livers seldom fetched more than five cents a pound.
But as the decade neared its end, European supplies of vitamin A were cut off by World War II trade embargoes. Though required by everyone for healthy eyes, skin, and immune systems, the military wanted the vitamin the most because they believed it to be paramount in improving the night vision of pilots. So when a Stanford University study identified shark livers as an incredible source of the suddenly hard-to-find vitamin, shark hunting increased statewide almost overnight, exploding from one million pounds in 1937 to nine million pounds in 1939. And that was only the beginning.
By the time 1941 came to a close, fishing crews based out of Santa Barbara-many of which were bankrolled by Frank and George Castagnola-were catching as many as 2,000 sharks a day on some boats and getting upward of $20 a pound for their efforts, a huge amount of cash even by today’s inflated standards. As Hazard, who credits his father for being the first around these parts to use nets to catch sharks rather than hooks and line, recalled, “There was a hell of a lot of shark out there and we’d bring in 1,000 or 2,000 of them a day. Our whole boat filled with so many of them that the water line was as high as the bow. Some people would fall down from the smell when we came into the harbor.” And once the livers were identified as the truly desired booty, the fishermen began slaying them at sea, dumping the carcasses overboard, and leaving a bloody sheen on the Pacific.
With little oversight and dollar signs in their eyes, the good times continued until 1944, when the source of their windfall all but dried up. “It took about two or two-and-a-half years, but we cleaned them all out,” said Hazard. “And we weren’t taking only soupfins.” Red Allen concurred that, by 1943, sharks in the Santa Barbara Channel “were just about all wiped out.” Shortly thereafter, with the war’s end and the development of synthetic vitamin A, the bottom fell out of the domestic shark market, quickly bringing per pound prices down out of the stratosphere and ending the shark bonanza along California’s coast.
But Santa Barbara-where a tidal wave of cash sloshed into the pockets of fisherman, particularly the Castagnola brothers-has never been the same. Though a once bountiful population of sea life was decimated, the shark liver fishery no doubt played a formative role in the now legendary development of the Santa Barbara waterfront district.