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To The Victor Belong The Pollock


Letter From Seattle

TO THE VICTOR BELONG THE POLLOCK

Hardly a tourist trap, Seattle's Fishermen's Terminal is surrounded by net sheds, warehouses, and repair yards. In the off-season, 30-foot gill-netters, 50-foot seiners, and 200-foot factory trawlers line the docks on Salmon Bay. It's a working port, where beefy, bearded men swap yarns about distant fishing grounds.

But these days, the stories don't dwell on remarkable catches, strange sights in northern waters, or friends lost at sea. Mostly, the talk on the docks is about the pollock war. Some see it as Seattle against Alaska, Americans against Japanese, fishermen against fishermen, but the lines are blurred. One thing is for sure: It involves two young sectors of the fishing industry--American factory trawlers and Japanese-dominated onshore processing plants.

The trawlers, a newly launched fleet of 65 ships that mostly sail out of Seattle to catch pollock and process them at sea, want an open-access fishery. The 19 plants in Alaska say they can't survive without a minimum allocation of pollock. A federal fish-management council has proposed guaranteeing the plants all the pollock caught in the Gulf of Alaska and up to 45% of the Bering Sea catch.

HOOKED. Once considered a junk fish by Americans, Alaska pollock has grown into a $1 billion industry, mainly because of the Japanese appetite for surimi, a pollock-based protein gel used for artificial crab legs, for one thing. The price of surimi has doubled in the past year to $2.20 a pound. Pollock is also used in fish and chips.

Chuck Petzel, 41, worries that the dispute could cost him his $100,000-plus salary. As chief engineer on the 376-foot, $50 million Alaska Ocean, he oversees a complex machine. Electronics do everything from steering the vessel to pinpointing schools of fish to allowing Petzel to order parts via the personal computer in his stateroom. Miles of wiring control the huge trawl net. A 6,000-horsepower engine drives the vessel, while three generators run a factory that can make 100 tons of surimi a day.

The ship sleeps 130 workers, needed during the busiest season, the six-week period that started Jan. 20. "There's a real ballet at work here," Petzel says, explaining that the Alaska Ocean in effect has four crews: sailors, fishermen, factory workers, and "hotel staff." The term isn't much of a stretch: The living quarters remind me of a cruise ship, right down to the exercise room. But below decks and up top, much of the work stinks, some of it is dangerous, and all of it is fast and furious. Now, adding to the tension of Uncle Sam's deadlines on seasons is the specter of allotments. "That's no longer fishing," says Petzel, "that's socialism."

Until the mid-1970s, most of the pollock off Alaska was caught by Asian ships, while American fishermen focused on higher-value salmon, crab, and halibut. In 1976, Congress gave U.S. vessels priority in the grounds within 200 miles of the coast. The small, fragmented U.S. fishing industry took a decade to figure out how to capitalize on the opportunity. Some built factory trawlers, some built onshore plants. For their part, the Japanese agreed to invest onshore rather than lose access to raw pollock. Their two largest companies, Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. and Taiyo Fishery Co., spent $230 million on four plants.

IMMOVABLE. By 1989, Americans were catching all the pollock off Alaska. Two years later, a six-month season had to be imposed in the Bering Sea: Too many boats were chasing too few fish. Alaska's onshore plants had to shut down half the year. "Shore plants can't move. We're trapped in a concrete building on concrete pilings," says Hugh Reilly, president of Westward Seafoods Inc., a Taiyo subsidiary. "The mobile fleet has the world's oceans as alternatives."

But Robert F. Morgan, a founder of Oceantrawls, which owns three large factory trawlers, says the allocation proposed last June would "be an arbitrary redistribution of the resource, for no compelling reason" other than to subsidize the Japanese, whose huge plants control most of the onshore processing capacity.

The Japanese-owned plants employ about 2,200 workers, and they buy pollock from more than 1,000 small-boat local fishermen, so Alaska--ever suspicious of the Lower 48--sided with the Japanese without blinking. "We've got a distant-water fleet tearing the heart out of us, and they're not paying their way," says Clem Tillium, special fishing adviser to Alaska Governor Walter J. Hickel. "It's only because Alaska is a colony of the U.S. and can be plundered that this can be stood for."

And, Alaskans point out, it's not as if Seattle's fleet is all-American. Although foreigners are limited to less than 50% ownership, many of the trawlers were rebuilt in foreign shipyards, and many were financed by Norwegians, Koreans, and Japanese. The Japanese say they just want the dispute resolved. Nippon Suisan Kaisha, with big stakes in both onshore plants and trawlers, bought half its Alaska fish offshore and half onshore last year. "Our position is neutral," says Kanji Kato, Nippon Suisan's top U.S. executive. "We don't want to be involved in this kind of mess."

PULLING HEARTSTRINGS. Across from the Fishermen's Terminal, the American Factory Trawler Assn. (AFTA) and the Pacific Seafood Processors Assn. (PSPA) fight each other from small office buildings only a harpoon's throw away from each other on 21st Avenue West. Oceantrawls' Morgan, president of AFTA, formerly headed the PSPA. Now, each group's publicity machine keeps busy insinuating that something or other smells rotten with the other group. AFTA charges that the federal council is biased and hints darkly at a Japanese pricing conspiracy. The PSPA recently counterattacked with a charge that the factory trawlers discard enough fish every year to provide protein for "every hungry child in America for one month."

The hostilities up and down 21st Avenue West put some folks in an awkward spot. Charles H. Bundrant, for example, fought hard to Americanize the fishery, building Trident Seafoods Corp. from scratch to a $400 million onshore processing operation based mainly in Alaska and now half-owned by ConAgra Inc. Highly critical of Japan's closed markets, Bundrant now finds himself siding with his major competitors, the Japanese-owned shoreside plants. And Westward's Reilly, heading a large Japanese-owned plant, also owns interests in three small fishing boats that deliver to an offshore ship.

The Commerce Dept. will have to decide on the fish-allocation proposal by Mar. 5. In the meantime, America's fledgling pollock industry is paying heavily for lobbyists and lawyers, diverting attention from the task of marketing in Japan and elsewhere. "The more energy they put into finding a scapegoat, the less competitive they become," says Jay Hastings, a Seattle attorney representing the Japan Fisheries Assn. "Just ask Lee Iacocca about that."DORI JONES YANG


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