New England fishermen net a Catch-22

Inside the small, dark taverns in this fisherman's town, they are telling the worst kinds of fish stories. Rick Randazza, who works the 90-foot stern trawler Taormina, remembers tying up at port with a hold full of fish after several days at sea . . . only to learn the fish prices had recently plummeted.

''There were 44 Canadian trucks in Boston unloading fresh haddock,'' he says.

So the skipper decided to put the Taormina's catch on ice and hope for a price increase. ''We gained 15 cents by waiting two days,'' Mr. Randazza says in disgust. Overall, the catch wasn't very profitable.

''It's a gamble every time we go out there.''

Other fishermen sitting nearby in the tavern nod in agreement. It's a story they've all heard before.

''You can't say we go fishing to make money, because there aren't any guarantees that we'll make money - there are no guarantees in this business,'' says Joe Testaverde, skipper of the 59-foot trawler Peter & Linda.

That's the way it's been for generations of New England fishermen.

''In the winter it is cold and in the summer it is hot. And you are working up to your knees in slime, and guts, and blood,'' Mr. Testaverde says. ''I like to fish - the aggravations, the not knowing. It's the most uncertain job in the world. But if I didn't like it, I wouldn't do it.''

There are more than 3,500 full-time fishermen working out of New England ports. In 1983 they pulled in more than 318 million pounds of food fish. Of that , about 140 million pounds were cod, haddock, or flounder - the three major moneymaking fish in the region.

On any given winter day a fisherman may find himself at the mercy of wind-swept waves, ice-covered decks and equipment, sudden squalls, broken nets, or a poor catch. But none of these has more to do with the success or failure of his work than the auction conducted early each morning in Boston and New Bedford to set the price of fish for that day.

It all depends on the availability of fish in the market. Fish prices can vary as much as 500 percent in the course of a year and 100 percent from day to day. And it's not until a fisherman learns the set price that he knows if he'll make a profit on his catch.

For fishermen who fish one day at a time (the ''day-trippers''), there are two circumstances that can cancel a fishing trip: rough seas or low prices.

But conditions are different for the larger trawlers. Their trips often last several days; when they return they are usually stuck with whatever price is set for that day.

That's apparently what happened to the Taormina.

But the system works the other way as well. If the price happens to be high when a skipper comes into port with a lot of fish, his boat makes a lot of money.

According to Dominic Sanfilippo, skipper of the 80-foot trawler Captain Dominic, it can cost $7,000 to $8,000 for fuel, ice, insurance, food, and other expenses just to get a boat out to the fishing grounds to begin fishing. If the catch is small, or the fish prices low, the boat and its crew lose money.

Despite the hardships inherent in the system, no one here is proposing any changes - changes that almost certainly would impinge on each fisherman's cherished freedom to fish when and where he wants.

Three years ago, a group of fishermen in New Bedford tried to change the system. Tired of low prices for fish, the fishermen banded together and refused to deliver fresh fish to the market until prices rose. They held out for three weeks, but the effort eventually broke down. It has not been repeated.

Nonetheless, fishermen still complain about fish prices. They say Canadian shipments of fresh fish into New England markets are keeping fish prices depressed, making it harder for local fishermen to break even.

The Canadians have increasingly been taking advantage of New England markets to sell their surplus fresh catch. The lucrative New England market is a short truck ride away from Canada's fishing ports, and the United States has no restrictive tariffs or quotas against fish imports.

''You cannot be in the seafood business without handling Canadian fish,'' says Ken Coons, executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Foundation.

Canada exports about 65 percent of its fish catch to the United States - including approximately 100 million pounds a year of fresh fish (compared with New England's 318 million pounds) and more than 260 million pounds of frozen fish.

In addition, operating costs for Canadian fishermen are lower. They have access to more abundant fishing grounds in northern Canadian waters, and they usually don't have to steam as far to catch large quantities of fish.

New England fishermen say the Canadians have an unfair advantage because they receive government subsidies that are not available to fishermen in the US. Local fishermen also complain the Canadians have an exchange-rate advantage of more than 20 percent with the weak Canadian dollar.

''With no tariff and no quota, the Canadians get a free ride with this fishing industry,'' says Michael Orlando, vice-president of the Seafarer's International Union.

Partly as a result of these complaints, the US International Trade Commission has just begun an investigation into the economic impact of fish imports from Canada and other nations on New England's fishermen.

Some fishermen and industry observers say the investigation will help make a case for establishing countervailing duties on Canadian fish. The feeling is that such duties would help put US and Canadian fishermen on an even footing in New England markets.

The Canadians argue that import restrictions will mean American consumers will pay higher prices for fish. They contend that fish is already expensive in the United States.

New England is home to a nationwide, $500 million-a-year fish-processing industry that relies on both local and Canadian fish to meet its daily production requirements.

''The New England fishery can't even come close to meeting market demand, which is why the processors reach outside the country to get fish,'' says Ian Hamilton, Canadian counsel and trade commissioner in Boston.

Most New England fishermen are willing to concede the frozen market to their foreign competitors. Local fishermen say they are more interested in reaping the top dollar in the fresh fish market than in competing with the Canadians in the low-priced frozen market.

Canada is the primary supplier of frozen fish to the US, with Iceland, Denmark, and Norway also contributing. The Canadians have the volume of fish and the freezing facilities to dominate the $300 million-a-year frozen fish market. Beefing up Americans' fancy for fish

It all amounts to one basic problem: Americans simply aren't eating enough fish.

At least that's how fishermen see it. In times of sky-rocketing beef prices, hungry Americans are turning instead to chicken - and that's bad news for fishermen.

Fishing industry representatives admit that sales suffer in some respects from the image problem of fish. They acknowledge that no one in the fishing industry has done for the haddock what Frank Perdue has done for the hen.

Indeed, according to one observer, less than 1 percent of money spent on advertising for food products is spent to promote sea food.

In 1982, the average American ate about 7.7 pounds of fish - most of it in restaurants. The record year was 1976, when fish consumption was up to 8.2 pounds per capita.

One boon for the fishing industry came in October 1953 with the development of the fish stick. Some fishermen had big dreams for fish sticks: hot school lunches, TV dinners, a fish stick on every plate. . . .

They were easy to handle and cook and - most important - they didn't smell or even look like fish. People didn't even have to know they were eating fish.

Fish sticks helped the fishing industry, but they didn't help New England fishermen. Fish sticks and other fish portions (like those in McDonald's fish fillet sandwiches) are made from frozen fish - most of which come from Canada.

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