Located on the eastern shore of Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway, the J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation built pleasure boats, fishing vessels, and an assortment of ships for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard from 1924 to 2013. In the late 1950s, Martinac transformed the tuna fishing industry and helped make Tacoma the "tuna boatbuilding capital of the nation,'' but the company fell on hard times in the 1980s as tuna fishing moved overseas ("Tacoma Nation's Top ..."). After enduring the 1990s and welcoming a brief revival in the early 2000s, Martinac went into foreclosure and was sold in 2014.
Building a Company
Joseph M. Martinac (1895-1963) was born in Sumartin on the island of Brač, situated along Croatia's Dalmatian Coast. After immigrating to the United States in 1912, he changed his name from Mijich to Martinac, a family nickname, to avoid confusion with another Joseph Mijich, his older cousin, who settled in the region in 1897. Once in the Northwest, Martinac worked in fishing and boat building with others in the Croatian community and by 1913 was employed at the Skansie Shipbuilding Company in Gig Harbor.
In January 1917, Martinac, with partners Martin Petrich (1880-1971) and William Vickat, established the Western Boatbuilding Company in Old Tacoma. In April, The Tacoma Daily Ledger reported the company employed 40 men building fishing boats up to 70 feet in length for use "in Alaskan waters, on the Columbia river and on Puget Sound" ("Fishing Vessels Turned Out Here"). Fourteen fishing boats worth $90,000 left the plant by the end of September, and the company found itself "receiving inquiries from all over the Sound" and "points in the Pacific Northwest" ("Builds $90,000 Worth of Boats"). While the venture was a success, Martinac left at the end of 1917 to pursue better wartime opportunities as a foreman at the Tacoma Shipbuilding Company. Petrich recalled years later that carpenters in the yard earned $4 a day, while the owners made only $2.47.
In 1924, Martinac founded his own company, the J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation. While the company built some yachts, it primarily built fishing vessels. A 1925 article in The Tacoma Daily Ledger, for instance, noted his yard was building a "very fine" 65-foot seiner for his cousin Joe Mijich and partner Sam Borich along with a "70-foot halibut boat" ("Ledger Shipping News"). Articles throughout the 1920s routinely noted work on purse seiners to catch salmon and sardines en masse. Purse seiners work by encircling schools of fish with a wall of netting. Once set, the crew pulls the bottom of the net tight to form a closed purse and hauls the catch on board. Martinac also built cannery tenders, boats that transported fish from traps and other fishing vessels to canneries, in addition to tuna boats. By 1929, the company had up to 60 employees and had launched 45 craft.
Work slowed with the onset of the Great Depression, but the company quickly rebounded. In 1932, it landed a contract from the United States Department of Agriculture's forestry department to build a 55-foot patrol boat, the Forester, for use in Alaska. By 1934, the company was "running at full capacity again with a large amount of repair work" and, at an expense of $5,000, expanded its ship ways to allow for construction of new craft up to 100 feet ("Boat Building Shows Upturn"). That same year, Washington state voters approved an initiative banning the use of fish traps, leading to increased demand for fishing boats. By early 1935, Martinac was "swamped with orders," doing business worth more than $100,000, and added an additional boat shed to accommodate demand ("Orders Swamp Martinac Yard").
World War II and the Cold War
World War II fueled rapid growth in Tacoma's shipbuilding industry even before the United States officially joined the war in December 1941. As early as 1940, the Ace Furnace company was building steel barges for the Navy in the Martinac facility, and work increased dramatically in the summer of 1941 when Martinac won a contract to build four 135-foot wooden minesweepers, worth $1,315,200, and convert fishing boats into patrol craft for the Navy. The terms required Martinac to build the first sweeper in 240 days with subsequent ships following every 30 days. To meet those demands, Martinac invested $70,000 on "two new ways buildings, a 2-story office building, new mill building, machine shop, storeroom, and mold loft floor," replaced older hand tools with air tools, and tripled its workforce ("Important Plant in the National Defense Industry"). Martinac launched YMS-125, its first minesweeper, on December 18, 1941, and the rest followed at a steady pace in 1942.
The company's success led to additional Navy contracts, starting with orders for 12 more minesweepers. The first built after the initial contract, YMS-216, launched in October 1942. In a show of patriotism, the roughly 172 employees at Martinac agreed to work on Labor Day and donated all of their overtime pay to the Army and Navy relief fund. Company managers matched the amount. Work on the minesweeper program continued into 1945, and Martinac also built four heavy, 110-foot Navy tugs in 1943 and a pair of refrigerated cargo ships, YP-637 and YP-638, toward the end of the war.
Work slowed at the war's end, and Martinac returned to building fishing boats. In late 1945, the company designed and launched a unique, 82-foot shrimp boat for a retired Army officer planning to fish out of Houma, Louisiana. Named the Sovereign, the ship could hold 150,000 pounds of frozen cargo and was valued at $130,000. More often, the firm built tuna clippers like the 109-foot Mary Jo and Mary S., both built with 200-ton freezer holds.
Work on fishing vessels continued through the 1950s, but the rise of Cold War tensions brought a resurgence in government contracts. That era also saw a change in company leadership with Joseph S. Martinac (1920-2007), the son of the company's founder, taking the lead as president after his father suffered a heart attack and stepped back into the role of general manager. In August 1951, Martinac announced it had contracts for four, 172-foot minesweepers, worth nearly $9 million, and planned to employ some 300 workers on the project. The size of old-growth Douglas Fir in the Pacific Northwest allowed them to build those four with solid keels, and the firm leased additional space at the Baker dock where pieces of white oak were laminated together for the ship's ribs. They used fir and red oak for planks, and extensive efforts were made to use non-ferrous metals as much as possible throughout the sweepers to reduce their magnetic signatures.
Work started in January 1952 and the first one, the USS Endurance (AM-435), launched on August 8, 1952. Just before the second launched in early 1953, Martinac received orders for an additional five minesweepers for $8 million. The last of the nine slid down the ways in the summer of 1955, was commissioned by the Navy, and finished its sea trials in 1956. Martinac made an unsuccessful bid on more minesweepers that year and protested a lack of transparency in the process. Backed by Representative Thor C. Tollefson (1901-1982), they objected that the winning company was allowed to revise its bid while Martinac was not given the same opportunity.
While the company did not prevail in the bidding dispute, work for government agencies continued. Martinac submitted the low bid to build a 99-foot ferry for the Alaska Highway Commission in 1956 for $321,870, and a $389,000 contract for a pair of 72-foot torpedo retrievers for the Navy followed in 1957.
The announcement that Martinac would work on hydrofoils generated significant excitement in Tacoma in the summer of 1960. Hydrofoils are ships built with wing-like structures on the bottom that lift the hull out of the water to reduce drag and enable travel at higher speeds. Naval officials wanted faster ships for anti-submarine warfare since nuclear submarines could outrun existing destroyers. Accordingly, in 1960, the Navy awarded a $2 million contract to The Boeing Company for its first hydrofoil, the USS High Point (PCH-1, short for Patrol Craft Hydrofoil 1). Boeing subcontracted work on the 115-foot ship to Martinac and awarded the company a second contract for construction of a smaller, experimental hydrofoil, the FRESH-1, in 1961. Martinac launched the High Point in 1962, and the Navy largely used it to test and develop hydrofoil technology from 1963 to 1984. In service it achieved a top speed of 50 knots, more than twice the speed of other patrol craft built by Martinac in that era.
While working on the High Point, Martinac received a contract for five conventional, 101-foot patrol boats in 1962 that were transferred to South Vietnam. The Coast Guard also sent ships to Vietnam and contracted with Martinac for 26 replacement cutters. The last of the 82-foot boats launched in July 1967, and all told, the three Coast Guard contracts brought in some $9.3 million in revenue.
Amidst the work for the Navy and Coast Guard, Martinac also assembled a one-of-a-kind research vessel for the University of California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography with funding from the National Science Foundation. Launched in June 1965, the 133-foot, $1.27 million Alpha Helix was designed for research in marine biology with "a veritable honeycomb of laboratory and specimen holding rooms" ("Along Tacoma's Waterfront," October 25, 1964). The ship had quarters for a crew of 12 and was built with a strengthened hull to allow for work in icy waters. After launching in 1965, the ship went to San Diego for outfitting and sea trials before moving on to research in Alaska, the Amazon River, the Great Barrier Reef, and beyond.
Rise and Fall of Tacoma's Tuna Boat Industry
Martinac both built tuna boats and directly owned and operated its own small fleet while producing ships for the government, but the American tuna fishing and related boat-building industries fell on hard times in the mid-1950s due to growing competition from other nations, particularly Japan. By 1954, American canneries imported some 35 percent of their tuna, and fishing boats increasingly had to wait extended periods to sell their catch. Prices fell from $400 to $270 a ton in 1955, demand for new boats plummeted, and company leaders banded together to demand action from elected officials. As president of Martinac and the Tacoma Shipyard Association, Joseph S. Martinac led the group in a hearing called by Senator Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) at the Elks Lodge in Tacoma to discuss the challenges posed by imported seafood.
Martinac revived the tuna industry in 1958 by converting one of its boats into a purse seiner. Up to that point, tuna was caught by "bait boats" working mostly out of ports in Southern California. After sailing, they would seine for small schooling fish, typically anchovies and sardines, and keep them alive in large, on-board tanks. Once they had sufficient bait, they would search for tuna. When spotted, crew members threw bait fish into the water to bring tuna closer and then fished with hook and line. While the process worked, up to half of a boat's time at sea could be spent obtaining bait. It was time consuming and relatively inefficient.
Two advances in technology made it possible to seine for tuna profitably in the late 1950s. First, new nets made from nylon were stronger and more durable than cotton ones. Second, Mario Puretic, a tuna fisherman, invented a hydraulic pulley system, known as the Puretic power block, that greatly reduced the time and labor needed to retrieve nets.
At the suggestion of tuna fisherman Lou Brito (1922-1983), and after significant deliberation, Martinac made a "well over ... $100,000 gamble" to have the Larsen Boat Works in San Pedro, California, transform the 124-foot Southern Pacific into a seiner ("Along Tacoma's Waterfront," October 2, 1960). The gamble paid off, as the shift to purse seining halved the cost of voyages. The Southern Pacific, captained by Brito, returned from its next trip with a full load of 260 tons after just four weeks at sea. Word of his success spread quickly, and most of the American tuna fleet shifted from bait fishing to seining by the early 1960s.
Success fueled a boom in new boat construction, and Martinac answered the call with bigger and more sophisticated ships. In 1961, the Martinacs partnered with company vice-president Fred Borovich (1907-1998) and Brito to build the Royal Pacific, the first tuna boat built in Tacoma in a decade. Measuring 142 feet in length and capable of carrying 425 tons, the Royal Pacific was the first tuna clipper to be designed and built as a seiner. It was also the last wooden ship launched by the company, and a series of steel 150-footers, described by J. S. Martinac as the "Rolls Royce of ships," followed ("Along Tacoma's Waterfront," October 25, 1964). In 1967, the company built the 154-foot J. M. Martinac for Brito and then started work on a line of 165-foot vessels. Capable of carrying 650 tons, the 165-footers were surpassed in 1970 by 184-foot boats. Even bigger 203-foot clippers slid down the ways in 1972, and a line of 223-foot ships with 1,200-ton cargo holds debuted in 1974. Typically, the company built four large clippers per year, struggled to keep up with demand, and occasionally lost orders due to long wait times.
Business boomed, but company president Joseph S. Martinac expressed a feeling they had "just about exhausted the current market" in 1972. "The trouble," he explained, was "that the boats last too long" ("Tacoma Nation's Top Tuna Boat Builder"). He remained concerned about the market's future, but the company started building a few king crab boats for use in Alaska in addition to tuna seiners and found itself with a two-year, $25 million backlog in 1974. "I still can't believe it," he commented, "I keep thinking this is the end of the tuna boat business. But the orders keep flying through the door" ("Tacoma Tradewinds: Happy ...").
The market finally slowed in 1975 as the tuna fishing industry faced a growing number of challenges. Increasingly, Latin American nations demanded American fishing vessels work 200 miles from shore and occasionally confiscated the catch from vessels that violated that limit. Additionally, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) placed quotas on fishing in coastal areas, and tuna prices fell into decline. Finally, growing public concerns over the effect of purse seining on dolphin populations led the U.S. government to enact regulations.
Yellowfin tuna routinely swim with spotted (Stenella attenuata) and spinner (Stenella longirostris) dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific, leading crews to develop a technique sometimes referred to as "dolphin fishing" or "fishing on dolphins" (Joseph, 2). Dolphins swim on the surface and are easier to spot than tuna, so they would look for dolphins, send speedboats to corral them, and then set nets to catch the tuna below. IATTC data showed that some 60 percent of tuna was caught in this manner in the late 1960s, and the American Tunaboat Association put the range at 45-85 percent in the 1970s. Invariably, some dolphins got tangled in the nets and drowned or died from their injuries.
Biologist William Perrin spent the summer of 1966 working on a fishing boat collecting data for the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. He observed 27 instances of dolphin fishing, estimated that somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 of the animals perished, and slowly realized that the public was unaware of this phenomenon. In 1968, he published "The Porpoise and the Tuna" in Sea Frontiers to bring attention to the topic and continued with his research. Based on admittedly limited data, he later calculated that perhaps 244,000 dolphins died as a result of purse seining in this fashion every year.
Perrin explained that while crews would intentionally herd dolphins to trap tuna in their nets, they did not want to catch or kill dolphins. Some crew members he spoke with expressed concern for the welfare of the animals, and, if nothing else, separating dolphins from tuna and nets was time and labor intensive. As such, crews, as early as 1959, adopted techniques to reduce dolphin mortality. One was called "backing down," where they pulled the net halfway in and then put the boat into reverse. That caused the net's cork line to sink at the far end, where dolphins tended to congregate, and made it easier for the animals to escape. Additionally, crew members worked from boats and sometimes swam to try and free trapped animals despite the safety risks. They also developed better equipment like the finer-meshed Medina panel that was placed at the far end of the net's circle to reduce the number of tangled dolphins.
In 1972, Congress established the Marine Mammal Protection Act and prohibited the intentional "taking" of dolphins. However, the act allowed for deaths of those "taken incidentally in the course of commercial fishing operations" and explicitly allowed waivers for the tuna industry while setting a goal of reducing "the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of marine mammals ... to insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate" ("Marine Mammal Protection Act"). The National Marine Fisheries Service, partly tasked with implementation of the law, issued a two-year waiver for tuna seining while it collected data sufficient for the development of dolphin kill limits.
Environmental organizations filed suit after the National Marine Fisheries Service granted a second waiver in 1974. Judge Charles R. Richey (1923-1997) ruled on their behalf in Humane Legislation v. Richardson and demanded the government set specific limits on dolphin mortality. The Fisheries Service responded with a quota of 78,000 in 1976, and the tuna fleet cut the fishing season short after hitting that mark in October. Some fishermen registered their ships in other countries to circumvent the quota, but the industry, despite frustrated objections, increasingly refined its techniques and found itself able to adapt to the new guidelines even though the kill limit was reduced to 59,050 in 1977 and lowered again to 20,500 in the 1980s.
Settlement of the lawsuit and a more stable legal environment led, in part, to increased demand for new clippers in the late 1970s. After building unsold boats to keep people working and denying rumors it would close in 1976, Martinac welcomed orders for four seiners worth $20 million in late 1977. The yard was "swamped" with work by 1978, and Carl Cheesman (1926-2019), Martinac's office manager, attributed growth to two factors. First, he explained the dolphin quota had been set at levels that "most fishermen" could "at least live with" ("Tacoma Tradewinds: Tunaboat Orders ..."). Second, the industry wanted larger vessels that could profitably travel to and fish in the western Pacific, where, for reasons unknown, yellowfin tuna and dolphins do not swim together as they do in the eastern tropical Pacific. By May 1978, Cheesman reported the company had agreements to build 15 vessels worth $90 million, including three orders for new, 238-foot ships with 1,500-ton cargo holds, and were "completely sold out through 1981" ("Tacoma Tradewinds: Martinac Backlog ... ").
Orders declined in the early 1980s and hard times returned after the 1983 launch of the Northern Glacier, a factory-trawler built for Alaska's cod and pollock fishery. Two seiners, built on the hope that buyers would appear, sat tied up at the Martinac dock for several years, and the company went without any new tuna boat orders until a few more trickled in late in the decade.
Unlike the 1970s, however, the market never recovered. In 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Act extended American control over fishing in territorial waters from 12 to 200 miles. Other nations increasingly enforced a similar limit and required American vessels to buy permits or fish elsewhere. Additionally, most American canneries closed because they could not compete with canneries in Thailand, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Taiwan, and elsewhere. In part, that was due to changing tastes. Americans increasingly chose tuna packed in water, imported with a 6 percent duty, over tuna packed in oil and protected by a 35 percent duty. Industry efforts to get a uniform percentage failed. Finally, the Dolphin Protection Consumer Information Act in 1990 and adoption of "dolphin-safe" labels meant that American companies could no longer buy seined tuna from the eastern Pacific. American vessels almost entirely left the fishery, as new company president Joseph S. Martinac Jr. speculated, and he cautioned that "Somebody's going to fish for that resource. It will be foreign boats, and they aren't obliged to limit their dolphin kills if they don't sell to the American market" ("'Dolphin-safe' May Backfire").
End of an Era
Martinac weathered the lean 1990s with a variety of jobs. In 1994, the company won a $19 million contract to renovate the Washington State Ferry Klahowya and then partnered with Nichols Brothers Boatbuilders on Whidbey Island and Dakota Creek Industries in Anacortes to form Evergreen State Shipbuilders. They sought a projected $210 million contract to build three new, 470-foot ferries, but ultimately lost out to Todd Shipyards in Seattle after a controversial and contested bidding process. Other repair work on ferries and construction of a few tugs, like the 91-foot, $4 million Deschutes, kept the yard working, and Martinac launched a 134-foot steel sailing ship, the Robert C. Seamans, for the Sea Education Association of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 2001. The company had never built a sailing ship but was "picked for the job from shipyards around the world, because of its care, quality and attention to detail" ("A Tall Ship is Launched").
From 2001 to 2006, work fell to a standstill. The company fought battles with the state for opportunities to bid on ferry contracts but was unable to secure any work. The situation seemed dire until private companies and the U.S. Navy started placing orders for high-tech tugs. Joe Martinac Jr. acknowledged it was "a welcome relief" and noted that it was the most work "we've had in 30 years" ("Good Times Return ..."). Company leaders continued efforts to win ferry business but did not win any additional contracts from the state, even though they offered to work on a nonprofit basis in 2011.
After launching a dozen tugs, Martinac made a deal with Alaskan Leader Fisheries to build the 184-foot Northern Leader for cod and sable fishing. Martinac lost its line of credit while working on the $25 million project and ultimately had to borrow $5.4 million from Alaskan Leader to finish it.
The company did everything it could to secure more projects after finishing work on the Northern Leader in July 2013, but its debts made it hard to attract new business. "There were boats to be built out there," Joe Martinac Jr., explained, "but we just couldn't put those deals together with this hammer over our heads" ("Tacoma's Oldest Shipyard to be Sold"). By the summer of 2014, the company was behind on payments and went into foreclosure. Joe Martinac Jr. expressed doubts they would be able to "save the shipyard," but asserted, "God knows, we tried" ("Tacoma's Oldest Shipyard to be Sold").
On July 19, 2014, the J. M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corporation sold at auction for $6,001,992.64 – the amount needed to cover its debts. The sale marked an end for the family-operated company, but a significant legacy endured. Many of the ships it launched remained in operation in 2022, and for 90 years Martinac was a source of good jobs and an essential part of Tacoma's working waterfront alongside companies including, among others, the Western Boatbuilding Company, Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, Mojean & Ericson, Martinolich Shipbuilding Corporation, Todd Shipyards, Peterson Boat Building, and Foss Maritime.