US fish industry lands a whopper -- new law to haul up productivity

From deep-sea fishing to shoreside processing and coast-to-coast marketing, rising fuel costs are challenging the US fish industry to find new ways of doing business.

Says Jacob Dykstra, longtime fisherman and president of the Point judith Fisherman's Cooperative, which represents 70 vessels in Rhode Island: "The average fisherman is spending 30 to 35 percent of his gross revenue to buy fuel. shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, whose work is especially fuel-intensive, claim they're spending as high as 59 percent. They're finding it almost impossible to be competitive."

Compared with their north American neighbors, Us fishermen must pay a high price to operate their vessels -- an average of 95 cents a gallon for fuel. In Atlantic Canada, fishermen pay little more than half that much, and Mexican fishermen pay only 17 to 20 cents a gallon.

To achieve more cost-efficient production and spur competition, Mr. Dykstra says new technology is needed.

"Sea vessels need various types of refrigeration, including refrigerated seawater to allow boats to stay away from shore longer and still keep fish fresh. Today the handling of fish is very traditional. Most vessels are still using ice to chill it.

"We also need gear that is less resistant when towed through the water, new hull designs, and small computers on board to monitor fuel efficiency."

Lee Weddig, vice-president of the National Fisheries Institute, which represents about 1,000 members from all aspects of the fishing industry, agrees:

"The byword of the '80s is efficiency. We want to improve productivity -- not just the harvest -- and improve the quality of the product and get it to market at a lower cost. But faced with constantly increasing costs, you have to run pretty fast just to stand still."

He says the industry will focus on exporting underutilized species, such as shark and squid, to Japan, Europe, and the oil-rich countries to expand its market and increase revenue.

"Exports are picking up," says Mr. weddig, "and they'll continue to grow as we harvest and handle a larger share of our portion of fisheries resources, which are about 20 percent of the world's total.

Fish exports were a $1 billion industry last year. In 1977, they were worth only $520 million.

Many industry sources say the American Fisheries Promotion Act, signed Dec. 22 by President Carter, could be the catalyst in helping the $12.7 billion US fish industry go forward in the face of soaring energy costs and inflation.

"The act will expand foreign trade and seafood products and provide more effective monotoring of foreign fishing operations," says Martha Blaxall, director of the Office of Utilization and development at the National Mrine Fisheries Service in the US Department of Commerce.

The new act, expected to offset the nation's nearly $3 billion balance of trade fisheries deficit, is the sequel to the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, which four years ago set up the mechanism to control fishery resources within 200 miles of US shores.

The new law, the result of legislation filed last spring by Rep. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana:

* Grants foreign fishing privileges within the US 200-mile zone based directly on how much a country is assisting the US fishing industry in increasing imports of US-caught fish, removing tariff duties, and transferring technology.

* Calls for phased reduction in foreign fishing within the nation's 200-mile zone. The phase-out is conditional on corresponding increases in the US catch.

* Doubles foreign fishing license fees charged to vessels owners from about $ 15 million to $30 million next year. Fees will escalate until the cost of operating and managing the 200-mile US zone is shared proportionately by the US and other participating countries.

* Sets up an observer program. Observers will monitor catches on all foreign vessels fishing in US waters. The cost of the program will be paid by the foreign fishing vessels.

* Extends funds from the merchant marine Act. The act, now limited to fishing vessels, will be extended to provide loan guarantees and low-interest rates for the renovation and construction of shoreside fishery facilities such as processing plants and loading facilities.

Since 1970, the US commercial fish catch has remained relatively static at about 6 billion pounds a year. Fishery resources available to Us fleets, however, could support a catch of more than 16 billion pounds annually, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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