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New England fisheries try to net import relief

New England fishermen are hoping it will be the Yankee equivalent of the showdown at the OK Corral. The Canadians say they've seen it all before.

But when Conference Room 2003-A fills up in the John F. Kennedy federal building here Wednesday morning for an International Trade Commission (ITC) investigative hearing, fishermen from both sides of the US-Canadian border will be squaring off once again in an effort to settle a longstanding disagreement over the impact of imports of Canadian fresh fish on the US fish market.

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The Americans say they are losing their shirts because of imports of cheap, subsidized Canadian fish, which they say drives down fish prices in American markets.

The Canadians say the problems of the New England fishing industry are not related to Canadian imports. The Canadian fishermen, they say, are simply more efficient fishermen with larger fish stocks. This enables them to sell their fish cheaper, they say.

The ITC investigation is intended to explore and clarify these murky issues.

New England fishermen are hoping the commission's final report will give them powerful ammunition with which to either initiate a law suit or encourage Congress to impose a countervailing duty on imports of Canadian fresh fish.

The Canadians are hoping the report will help put the issue to rest.

''This is our fifth go-around in the past 10 years,'' says Ron Bulmer, president of the Fisheries Council of Canada. ''We are at the stage where we are just short of harassment.''

According to National Marine Fisheries Service statistics, imports of fresh cod fillets from Canada have increased from 9.8 million pounds in 1976 to 28.9 million pounds in '83.

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In terms of fish prices, New England fishermen in 1976 were selling whole cod off the boat at 26 cents a pound. By contrast the Canadians were able to sell cod fillets at 30 cents a pound, including the costs of processing and transporting them to New England. In effect, the Canadians were able to sell their final product at a price close to what it cost New England fishermen simply to catch the fish.

''There is no way in the world that American fishermen can take a fish off vessel and fillet it for 4 cents,'' says Beth Amaral of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

By 1983 little had changed. Canadian cod fillets sold at 37 cents a pound while the off-boat price for cod paid to New England fishermen before processing was 34 cents a pound.

''It is unfair competition,'' says Amaral. ''We cannot compete with this subsidized fish coming in from Canada.''

''No one could be operating in business that way unless he was essentially operating in a government job-creation program,'' says James O'Malley, a former fisherman.

''If they can out-compete us, good luck to them,'' he says. But he adds, ''What I don't like is being in competition with the Canadian federal-tax payer.''

Mr. Bulmer of the Canadian Fisheries Council says Canadian fishermen receive about the same level of government assistance as US fishermen. ''Our market advantage is that we are just coming from a much broader resource base,'' he says.

Since the extension of the 200-mile fishing limit in the mid-1970s, annual Canadian cod catches have increased from about 551 million pounds to about 1.356 billion pounds. Roughly 60 percent of total Canadian landings are exported to the US, 95 percent of it as frozen fish.

''We don't have a frozen-fish business anymore,'' says O'Malley, referring to New England fishermen, whose catch is almost exclusively sold in the more lucrative US fresh-fish market. ''Now, what is happening is the Canadians are penetrating the fresh market.''

Bulmer says the Canadians don't pose a threat to the US fresh market because geography puts the Canadians at a significant disadvantage.

''We are not this tremendous cloud of doom over the fresh market that they would like to paint us as,'' he says. Nonetheless, he says he is concerned about what he sees as rising support for protectionist policies in the US, including in the fishing industry.

New England fishermen see the same trend, and as such they feel they are poised to come out on top in the ITC inquiry.

''I have never seen a time that looked so good in which the organization and orchestration has been so thorough and so well planned,'' says Mr. O'Malley.

A second and final ITC fact-finding hearing will be conducted Friday in Portland, Maine. The ITC commissioners and investigators will then have until the end of the year to compile their findings. The report will then be presented to President Reagan.

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