Hard times in the US fishing industry have prompted a rash of bills in Congress, including a ban on foreign fishing in US waters by 1985. Supporters admit the bill, introduced by Rep. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, is antagonistic to the open spirit of the proposed Law of the Sea still being hammered out in the United Nations. But they think it more important now to aid domestic fishermen struggling to compete against huge foreign fishing vessels in American waters.
The fishing industry saw how effective the 1976 200-mile limit law was in stopping foreign overfishing that nearly wiped out several species off US shores. Now, industry representatives want to expand that law as a marketing tool and as a way to cut in on competition from foreign fleets.
According to Mim Chapman, a fisherwoman from the suthern Oregon coast, it is not just a case of foreign vs. domestic, but big vs. little.
"To compete on the world market with the huge, subsidized foreign boats, we need at least to have our own resources preserved for us," said Miss Chapman, in Washington recently representing FISHFORCE (Fishermen Intent on Sending Home Foreign Operations taking our Resources and Controlling our Economy). She described the group as a grass-roots California-Oregon-Washington state lobby and communications network.
"We're not asking for a government subsidy," Miss Chapman said. "If we're given the chance to use our own natural resources, we can survive as an industry."
The Breaux bill gradually would phase out foreign fishing within 200 miles of US shores by 1985. If Americans do not start fishing the species that foreigners fish in US waters now, the government will, in turn, phase out the ban, allowing Japan, Poland, the Soviet Union, and others once again to fish the species that the US fishing industry ignores.
One expert sees dangers in trying to promote the domestic fishing industry in this way.
David Crestin, the international fisheries assistant at the Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester, Mass., points out that the bill "implies ownership of fishery resources rather than trusteeship," the aim of the UN Law of the Sea conference.
Aside from disagreeing with the theory of the bill, he doesn't think it is economically practical.
"[The supporters] think that if you kick out the foreigners, they'll have to buy from us," Mr. Crestin said. But the US has no monopoly on the world fish market, he points out, and ousted foreign fishing nations will simply fish -- and buy -- elsewhere.
"I doubt that to kick them out by an arbitrary date will help us in the long run," he said.
The Breaux bill comes at a time of struggle and transition for the US fishing industry, which for so long has focused only on the expensive fish market, leaving the less-glamorous species such as hake, squid, and pollock to foreigners.
According to Miss Chapman, the industry is finally realizing that "we shouldn't ignore the bread-and-butter market" for less-expensive fish. Small, independent US fishers want to get a piece of this enormous market -- mostly foreign right now -- that foreign fishers, backed by government subsidies, have recognized and expertly developed.
Miss Chapman claims that "American fishermen are dying to get into the new species." She and her crew fish black cod ("the hamburger of the Korean dinner table," she says) off the Oregon coast in competition with Soviet and Poles. Her 50-foot boat competes with 40-foot long Soviet vessels that "vacuum up" the fish and process the catch right-on-board.
She denies that the Breaux bill and others like it are "protectionist."
"We [US citizens] pay for patrolling the 200-mile limit. . . . And licenses for foreign vessels only pay a fraction of enforcement costs," she says. "I don't want the industry to die. It's costing the US to give those fish away."
Gus Fritchie, attorney for the National Fisheries Institute in Washington, says the US fishing industry sees the Breaux bill as a good way to move into foreign markets. The bill would let the US use the right to fish in its waters as a tool to pry loose strict trade barriers. The fewer the restrictions a nation placed on US-caught fish, the more its fishing boats would be allowed to cruise US waters.
Mr. Crestin not only thinks it unrealistic to assume the US will be able to muscle in on the foreign market now after banning other fishers, but says, "By 1985, Americans will not be eating the fish caught off our own shores that foreign fishermen catch now."
The question, Mr. Fritchie admits, is whether US fishermen will harvest the fish if the foreigners are fenced out of US waters.