Brooklyn, N.Y. — Whitecaps whip the vacant piers on the Brooklyn waterfront. Once a thriving cargo terminal, brimming with everything from TV sets to toys, it is now nearly deserted.
Later this year, however, these venerable but sturdy piers will welcome a new kind of cargo: millions of pounds of fish. Fishery officials are eyeing old general cargo facilities around the country for use as new fish-processing complexes. The Brooklyn waterfront pier here is one.
Seven years ago, before Congress passed the landmark Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the United States fishing industry, much like this somewhat run-down section of waterfront, verged on decrepitude. It was caught between its own aging and ill-equipped fleet of trawlers and a rising tide of foreign competition.
Following the establishment of the 200-mile Fishery Conservation and Management Zone (FCZ) in 1976, however, foreign fishing off US coasts was dramatically curtailed. The remainder of foreign fishing in the FCZ is closely regulated.
In turn, these restrictions on foreign fishing, coupled with a number of efforts to rejuvenate US fishing, have brought the industry to the threshold of a newfound prosperity, according to Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Washington.
Other fisheries experts agree.
''If it were not for the 200-mile-limit law, we wouldn't have anything but a cottage industry left,'' says John Linehan, an NMFS official in New Bedford, Mass.
Since 1976 the NMFS reports annual US commercial fish catches have increased nearly 20 percent. In addition, the value of the US catch has almost doubled to
Yet the industry has barely begun to tap its full potential, says Lee Weddig, executive vice-president of the National Fisheries Institute in Washington, an association that represents private commercial fishing interests.
A number of unyielding older problems and some new challenges are holding the industry back. These include:
* A record US trade deficit for fisheries products - $3 billion in 1981, the last full year for which figures are available.
* A lag in the construction of badly needed, sophisticated large trawlers. Many smaller vessels (less than 100 feet) are old and outmoded.
* Increasing fuel costs put US fishermen at a disadvantage compared with their competitors from Canada, Mexico, and other countries, who buy low-cost, government-subsidized fuel.
* Heightened competition among US fishermen and violations of conservation quotas by domestic and foreign fishermen. As a result, some American fishermen are actually bringing in fewer fish than before the FCZ was established.
The most pressing problem may be bottlenecks in processing the fish for eventual distribution to wholesalers and retailers.
US fishermen haul in more fish than US processors can handle. Often fishermen are forced into ''joint ventures,'' in which they sell their catches to foreign processing vessels at depressed prices, according to Brendan O'Malley, a fisheries expert with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. This adds enormously to the trade deficit for fisheries and to a lesser degree sometimes raises the prices American consumers pay for some species.
Mr. O'Malley says he's concerned about the high number of joint ventures. ''Our focus should be on training (US fishermen to) process the fish themselves.''
The limited amount of US fish processing can be traced, in part, to Americans' attitudes about fish.
Take squid, for example. Squid is one of several so-called ''underutilized species'' that are available in great quantities but don't suit most Americans' taste. Fisheries experts say that 84,000 metric tons of squid could be harvested by fishermen from Virginia to Maine every year - yet only a fraction of this was caught last year. Americans' appetite for squid doesn't even begin to approach that of the Japanese.
Since demand is low, so is the price fishermen are paid. Flounder and haddock sometimes fetch upward of a dollar a pound, while last year's East Coast squid catch went for about 16 cents a pound, according to port authority figures.
Despite these disincentives, squid may soon become a more profitable catch. Squid is more plentiful than some species and can be caught more easily - if boats are rigged with special equipment. Creative advertising and cooking of the species is encouraging domestic demand. Japan and other big squid-eating nations have become more interested in importing squid that is caught and processed in the US.
To encourage the fishing of plentiful species such as squid, US officials responsible for government loan programs are beginning to favor permit applications from those who want to fish for underutilized species as opposed to more traditional varieties.
In the wake of new federal regulations issued in December, federal dollars are for the first time being made available to help finance the construction of shore processing facilities. The port authority, a bistate government agency spearheading the redevelopment of New York as a major commerical fishing port, hopes that one of the country's first new squid-processing facilities will open later this year here in the now-deserted Erie Basin/Columbia Street pier area in Brooklyn. Currently, only a few small commercial fishing boats trickle into New York harbor.
''The joke is that our fish are caught by truck!'' said a port authority spokesman. But some other officials here predict that this quip won't continue to ring true.