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US fishing industry: up from the depths

By getting Americans to eat more monkfish and similar oddities, the US fishing industry is charting a path to revival.

Experts say a broad rejuvenation is taking place in the $7 billion-a-year industry, which has suffered under the cumulative effects of high fuel costs in a fuel-intensive business, high financing costs for expensive equipment, and the depletion of fish stocks from overharvesting.

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The industry's strategy sounds deceptively simple: persuade consumers to broil, bake, and fry more fish.

''I see what's happening now as a rebirth of the fishing industry,'' says Diane Boratyn of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Some efforts being made:

* The Catch America/Seafood USA program, a $1.5 million government-sponsored effort to promote increased consumption of fish and to improve marketing techniques at the retail level. Centered in 20 cities, the program is seeking to spur a greater demand for fish products by emphasizing their nutritional and economic value, and by generating interest in nontraditional species such as monkfish and squid.

* The increasing use of high technology, from onboard fish-finding sonar and electronic net-deployment devices to onshore computerized marketing procedures and sophisticated seafood processing equipment. Alaska recently established the Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak to promote training, research, and development of the Alaskan fisheries.

* Greater government-industry cooperation, including research in government labs centering on the harvesting and processing of nontraditional species, and agreements between the fishing industry and the State Department on limiting foreign fishing in US waters.

The US fishing industry is only now regaining its sea legs after a decade of rising fuel costs and major changes in the law - including establishment of the 200-mile limit and the institution of quotas on certain species of fish. The 1976 Fishery Conservation and Management Act restricted operation of foreign fishing vessels within 200 miles of the US coastline.

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''At the outset of the 200-mile law there was disappointment that huge success didn't follow immediately,'' says Larry Sneed, deputy director of fisheries affairs at the State Department. What happened instead is that the decline in foreign fishing led to a dramatic increase in competition between domestic fishermen which, combined with the new quotas, forced some of them out of business.

''The guys that got in and kicked hard were the ones that survived,'' says Charlie Follett, president of the Point Judith (R.I.) Fishermen's Cooperative. ''That's the way it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.''

While the mood of fishermen informally surveyed at a recent fish exposition in Boston was generally upbeat, some said that was only because ''things couldn't get any worse.''

Others were somewhat more optimistic, mainly because of the greater concern they say the government is showing for their livelihood. ''There is a much more positive view both in the fisheries industry and the State Department toward the handling of foreign fishing rights,'' says Ken Coons of the New England Fisheries Development Foundation. ''We're getting much more serious about trading access to our fish for access to their markets, and, in fact, limiting and eliminating foreign fishing altogether.''

US fishermen are particularly adamant on this point. Many of the foreign factory-processing ships that enter US waters are heavily subsidized by their home countries. But the existence of the processing ships points up what some see as the lack of sophistication in and piecemeal approach of the US fleet - still comprised largely of vessels with crews of five or six men. ''We're like a developing country when it comes to fishing,'' says Mr. Sneed of the State Department.

Despite the continuing problems, there are already signs that the promotion of fish products is working. Annual per capita seafood consumption in the US rose to 13.2 pounds last year, up a quarter of a pound over the previous year.

Diane Boratyn of Catch America cites statistics showing that the largest increases in last year's fish harvest were among nontraditional species such as shark.

But the greatest amount of growth in the fishing industry may come from increasing the efficiency of the onshore distribution system.

''There's an old expression in the hog-processing industry to the effect that they package everything but the squeal. And the beef people do a good job of utilizing the whole animal. But with most species of fish, you're talking about using somewhere between 25 and 35 percent and discarding the rest,'' says Mr. Coons.

He says would like to see not only the development of more fish products from what is now discarded, but a streamlining of the marketing and distribution system in this country as well. There are 15,000 to 20,000 wholesale dealers in the fishing industry, while three beef manufacturers account for 92 percent of production in the beef industry. He estimates that at least 10 percent of all the fish received by supermakets cannot be sold because it is no longer fresh.

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