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Too many fishermen, too few fish

From his apartment window, Ian McWhannell looks out on Soviet fishing ships that motor into Wellington Harbor to pick up fresh crew. The sight of foreign vessels, which work under a joint venture with a New Zealand company, upsets Mr. McWhannell. Hardly any Kiwi sailors have worked on board the alien trawlers that harvest fish within the country's 200-mile economic zone.

McWhannell, executive officer of the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen, which represents about 50 local fishermen's groups in Wellington, complains that the zone "hasn't worked out the way we thought it would."

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To Fletcher Challenge Ltd., New Zealand's largest corporation, however, the zone has worked out better than anticipated. As a partner with the Soviets, it has seen profits bolstered by selling to foreign markets and by having taxes reduced through export incentives.

The government, meanwhile, views the zone as a mixed success. Fisheries officials are pleased with the increase in export income, but unhappy that the local fishermen have not taken a larger role. Last year, $135 million (NZ$165 million) worth of fish were sold abroad, compared with $82 million (NZ$100 million) in 1979.

While the joint ventures net profits, the domestic fishing industry "is in the worst shape it's ever been in," says Nick Jarman, general manager of the New Zealand Fishing Industry Board. He says the problem "is that we have too many people looking for too few fish. . . . The fishermen are not meeting expenses."

The industry turned bad after the discovery a decade ago of vast quantities of rock lobster off of the Chatham Islands, about 350 miles east of New Zealand. The lobsters, shipped to the United States as lobster tails, were even harvested by helicopter. "Anything that floated went to the Chatham Islands for the rock lobster gold rush," an official noted. It didn't take long to overfish the lobsters, and today only two firms remain on the islands plucking the spiny creatures.

A government official says this experience has led the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to consider policing all catches more closely -- an unpopular possibility with the nation's estimated 3,000 fishermen and 3,000 processors.

Those in the domestic industry are fighting not only among themselves at the fishing holes, but also in joint ventures. Some fishermen have recently charged that fish caught by the Fletcher-USSR joint venture have been sold in Australia, a major importer of New Zealand fish, undercutting domestic fishermen.

According to Peter Robins, general manager of Fletcher fishing Ltd., a subsidiary of Fletcher Challenge, the company "committed the cardinal sin of being the new boy on the block and being successful." Fletcher challenge cast its nets for the first time in 1979. Today, the company operates 11 out of the 21 joint ventures fishing in New Zealand waters.

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The company says it believes it has "some commitment" to gain a certain degree of "New Zealandization" in its joint ventures. it argues, however, that Kiwi fishermen won't take jobs on joint-venture boats, since they don't have the amenities that New Zealand boats have.

Also, the waters around New Zealand are extremely rough. A government official calls it a "stormy bit of countryside," noting that sailors refer to the surrounding waters as the "roaring 40s," for the high winds that blow around the area's latitude.

Mr. McWhannel, not surprisingly, disputes any assertion that Kiwis don't want to roll with the swells pushed north by Antarctic gales. "Our fishermen will work 6 weeks to 120 days at sea and fit right in," he declares, pointing out that they have crewed on US-New Zealand joint-venture tuna vessels operating in N.Z. waters.

Mr. Jarman says some joint ventures made attempts to put New Zealanders on their ships but ran into social and dietary problems. For example, crews on some of the South Korean ships mainly ate vegetables. And it's difficult to spend months at sea with a crew that doesn't speak English.

In the case of the Soviets, Jarman says, "New Zealanders have all kinds of suspicions and fears." For example, along the wharves of Dunedin, New Zealanders mutter about the Soviet ships being way overstaffed -- possibly with Soviet intelligence agents -- and suddenly appearing in New Zealand ports when US warships are in the area on maneuvers. Despite the suspicions, Mr. Robins says Fletcher Challenge has learned a lot from the joint venture: where the best fishing grounds are: what the catch expectations are on a daily basis; what the cost of onshore processing is; and how to market fish overseas.

"We've also learned that it's not economic for a New Zealand-owned company to fish in deep water by itself," he says.

McWhannell disagrees. He cites a contest that was held between N.Z. boats and some Japanese joint-venture boats. On a per-hour basis, the New Zealanders netted more fish.

Fletcher Challenge says that instead of putting Kiwis on Soviet trawlers, it has decided to spend more money for onshore processing. The company hires about 70 people in Dunedin to process fish -- a strategy designed to take advantage of an export tax incentive that encourages processing. But even without the incentives, Robins says, the business would still be profitable still trawling offshore.

The Fishing Industry Board is pressuring for more government help for the industry. Companies now receive export incentives, concessional loans to build large trawlers, sales tax exemptions on gear, and an 11.7-cent-a-liter (45 -cent-a-gallon) refund on gasoline. The board wants the government to invest $ 22 million a year for the next 10 years. At present, the government is spending about $12 million a year. The new investment, the board estimates, could result in 3,000 new jobs, mainly on the South Island.

The best opportunities for New Zealand fishermen may be in southern bluefin tuna and squid markets. Japan would be the chief customer for both. Also, if the US government achieves its goal of promoting so-called "junk fish" to consumers under new names, New Zealand might be able to sell such species as orange roughie, New Zealand bream, and green mussels in the US. Bream, for instance, woud become snapper.

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