Fall River, Mass. — The arrival of an aging Portuguese fishing vessel at this East Coast port raises the first banner of a revamped US fishing policy. The wooden-decked Novos Mares is the first foreign vessel ever to purchase fish directly from fishermen at a US harbor. If everything stays on course, the Portuguese firm that owns the boat will buy as much as a quarter of the annual local cod catch -- and at prices higher than domestic fish processors are willing to pay.
Paradoxically, the quiet mooring of the tiny co-salting boat earlier this week raises more national than local issues. Fish processors in nearby New Bedford are much more concerned about a strike by processing-plant workers that has paralyzed the industry than with the long-term effects of foreign competition.
On the broader horizon, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Washington say sales to foreign countries will help an ailing fishing industry (especially the hardpressed fishermen), revitalize port towns. They point to only one drawback: higher domestic prices.
"The only group that will get hurt in this whole deal." comments William Folsum, associate director of the development department of the fisheries service, "is the American comsumer."
Increased prices will not be felt immediately because of large stocks of fish , particularly cod, believed to swim in East Coast waters.Retailers also have a practice of stabilizing prices for most species, even though wholesale prices fluctuate seasonally. But if the Reagan administration develops other foreign markets, as expected, the American consumer could see escalating fish prices in years to come.
Local fish processors say their fortunes are also at stake. Already sailing in rough waters with the workers' strike and higher production costs, processors feel that added foreign competition may be enough to push them under.
The long-term effects "will be deleterious," according to one dealer. "It is not a good situations," says robert Usen, owner of Capeway seafoods, one of NEw Bedford's largest processors. "Cod is a major bread- and-butter item for us."
Mr. Usen admits, however, that the New Bedford fish processors have failed to keep up with other East Coast fishing ports. He says the local industry has not kept pace with technological innovations that have expedited production and trimmed labor costs elsewhere. Now New Bedford processors claim they need to cut about $2 from the hourly wage of unskilled laborers -- the main bone of contention in the present labor dispute -- in order to compete with other East Coast firms.
Industry observers, though, say foreign competition will force the processors to make their operations more cost effective and to improve the quality of the processed fish.
"It's to the processor's advantage to work with the Portuguese," Mr. Folsum adds.
He explains that processors could chart a cheap route into European markets via Portugal. If the processors have foresight, he argues, they would arrange long-term contracts with the Portuguese. Then, in a few years when Portugal enters the European Economic Community (EEC) as expected, the Portuguese, not the American processors, would have to shoulder the EEC's export tariff burden. Because Europeans, unlike Americans, regard fish as a staple food, these new markets could be very lucrative.
A local industry expert, who asked not to be identified, says the Fall River cod deal is a "shot in the arm for the fishermen." He agrees with most other industry observers that the fishermen have been hit hardest by rising energy and labor costs. Fish processors are the middlemen who, so far, have the strongest hand in controlling prices paid to fishermen. Opening foreign markets, the source explains will give fishermen an alternative to the domestic processors, something fishermen have never had before.
Exploring the possibilities of the Portuguese market began last fall when US government officials and private businessmen went to Lisbon to discuss cod sales. Portugal's cod catch, formerly the world's tops, has dwindled in recent years due to diminished fish stocks in Portuguese waters and limited access to foreign fishing grounds due to the 200- mile territorial limits now imposed by most nations. The Portuguese are willing to pay top price for cod -- the main ingredient in "bachlau," an important traditional dish.
An agreement made this past March between the two nations stemmed from President Carter's "fish and chips" policy. Simply stated, it allows a foreign country's to fish in US territory if the country agrees to but fish from domestic fishermen.
The policy was adopted partly in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Besides imposing the grain embargo, President Carter suspended Soviet fishing rights in US waters, leaving a glut of fish to sell to other countries.
then the Portuguese sailed onto the scene. In 1980, Portugal bought $210,345 of fish from the US, a 15-fold increase from the previous year. The Fall River cod deal alone will dwarf these amounts, bringing in as much as $4 million to the financially strapped New Engl and fishing industry.