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US reeling over Canadian fish

To hear Matthew Parisi talk, New England fishing may soon be the one that got away. And it's going to Canada. ``The Canadians are doing a number on us,'' says Mr. Parisi, who fished the Gloucester, Mass., waters for 40 years before retiring a decade ago. ``It started with salt fish, and the Canadians took that. Then there was the red fish [ocean perch], and they took that. Now they're taking the fresh fish -- and next, they're going to take us to Canada.''

Enter the United States International Trade Commission. Last week the commission ruled 5 to 0 that Canadian imports are damaging American fishermen and threaten to damage American processors (which make fillets from whole fish). If, after another five months of investigation, the ITC and US Commerce Department decide the Canadian government is subsidizing its fishing industry, the US may put a ``countervailing duty'' (a tariff comparable to the subsidies) on Canadian exports of fresh fish.

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Unlike shoes, textiles, and other industries seeking protection, fishing is not a sunset industry. Also unlike shoes and textiles, Congress and the president don't have a say in whether or not a duty is imposed on Canadian fish.

Americans have been eating more -- though not much more -- fish lately. Per capita consumption has gone from 2.68 pounds a year in 1982 to 3.13 pounds last year.

But this has not helped US fishermen financially, and many are leaving the trade. Moreover, after a spate of ship losses and crew injuries, insurance costs have doubled or tripled for many fishermen. And when the World Court gave the Canadians access to the northern waters off the Georges Banks last year, Americans lost access to a valuable fishing ground.

The depletion of US waters -- a result of overfishing, experts on both sides of the border say -- also means that Americans have been netting fewer fish. Between 1982 and '84, the ``landings'' dropped almost 9 percent, from 369 million pounds to 337 million pounds.

Meanwhile, Canada has more than filled the void: Imports of Canadian fish to the Northeast have gone from $15.5 million in 1979 to $53 million in '84, according to the ITC. Canadian fish fill more and more American platters: About 18 percent of all whole fish and 17 percent of all fillets are imported from Canada.

The North Atlantic Fisheries Task Force, which filed the suit with the ITC, charged that the fresh groundfish industry -- including haddock, cod, sole, flounder, hake, and pollock -- lost an additional $30 million as a result of Canadian imports.

The task force contends the Canadian government helps build a strong fishing industry 55 ways. It says Canada's federal and provincial governments (in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island) subsidize fishing by, among other things, giving grants and low-interest loans in buying vessels; making loans to improve vessels and build processing facilities; owning stock in and giving assistance to the two major fishing companies; and helping foot the bill for bait and

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insurance policies.

All this, the Americans say, means the Canadians can undercut them on the market -- by at least 10 to 20 percent (the amount they want in countervailing duties). But US fishing gets help from its government, too, counters Gary Horlick, an attorney representing Canadian fishing interests. ``Both countries have fairly small subsidies . . . and if everyone gets a subsidy, it's not a subsidy, it's fiscal policy,'' he says.

Moreover, he asserts, ``Everyone is overlooking a crucial fact, the fact that is driving this case: It is illegal to land foreign fish here [in the US],'' he says. Canadian fish must come in by truck, meaning they are less fresh and fetch a lower price.

Since 1978, US fishermen have tried to slap tariffs on both frozen and fresh fish imports. This time, they are including fresh groundfish (whole fish and fillets), which almost exclusively affect New England fishermen. If successful, the frozen-fish contingent (mainly on the West Coast) is likely to file a similar petition. In recent years the Canadians have shifted more of their export efforts from frozen to fresh fish.

There is new support from American processors as well. In the past, processors needed Canada's whole fish to make fillets, and rather liked the lower price the Canadians offered. But National Sea Products, one of the two major Canadian fish companies, has opened offices in the US and circumvents the US (mainly Boston) processors. In the last 18 months, says Michael Esch, an attorney representing the American fishing interests, competition from Canadian fillets has run 12 to 14 processors out of business

or into bankruptcy proceedings.

The Maritime Provinces, says Belden Davis, a commercial officer at the Canadian consulate in Boston, are far more dependent on fishing than is New England. The Canadian government foots the bill either way, in subsidies or unemployment insurance. ``If you don't pay them to run the plants, you pay them for loafing.''

Canada and the US are studying a free-trade agreement, similar to one the US has with Israel. But this would probably not knock down any countervailing duties the US may impose on Canadian fish, says Desiree Tucker at the office of the US Trade Representative.

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