Proposals that would 'Americanize' fishing fleet criticized

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Fishing companies, foreign embassies and the state of Alaska are sounding off about some proposed federal rules that would ''Americanize'' large fishing vessels operating off U.S. coastlines.

Most agree that the proposed rules are flawed. But there isn't much agreement about how they should be rewritten. Debate generally is split between fishing interests that don't have much foreign investment and those that do.

The rules were required by the American Fisheries Act, pushed by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in 1998. That said fishing vessels more than 100 feet long and operating in U.S. waters must be at least 75 percent owned and controlled by U.S. citizens.

Many of the nation's biggest fishing boats work off Alaska catching pollock, the nation's richest fishery worth some $700 million per year. Although the pollock fishery was the impetus for the American Fisheries Act, the law also applies to vessels working elsewhere off U.S. shores.

The federal Maritime Administration, a branch of the Department of Transportation, wants to publish the final rules for implementing the U.S. citizenship requirement by April 1, with the rules to take effect Oct. 1, 2001.

People commenting on the draft proposals say they have the potential to cause a major change in the fishing industry. And some say that's just what's needed -- a break from foreign domination of the fishing industry off Alaska.

Most of the major processing plants that buy Bering Sea pollock and other bottomfish from fishing boats are owned by Japanese companies.

These companies have told the Maritime Administration that the 75 percent ownership and control rule must not be used to cut off loans and advances the processors traditionally have given boat owners to cover their seasonal operating expenses or upgrade their vessels.

The debate is whether such loans constitute impermissible control over a fishing vessel.

Some foreign-owned processors and vessel owners contend that they are exempt from the act because of 1950s free trade treaties between the United States, Japan and South Korea.

But Don Giles, chief executive of Icicle Seafoods Inc., a Seattle seafood processing company with no foreign ownership, urged the Maritime Administration to hold a firm line on the U.S. citizenship requirement.

Other treaties, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, suggest the United States generally doesn't cede its control over fishing and other maritime activities along its shores, Giles said.

Foreign interests actually could strengthen their hold in the Bering Sea pollock fishery by buying or leasing fishing privileges assigned now to fishing vessels through cooperatives formed in the wake of the act's passage, he said. Under these co-ops, each vessel is assigned an individual allocation of fish to catch under these co-ops.

Deborah Sedwick, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development, wrote that the state is concerned about boats selling or leasing their co-op shares to foreign-controlled companies. Such transactions could result in boats remaining tied up at the dock, not operating in pollock or other fisheries, she said.

Conservationists and the fishing industry generally have argued that this would be a good thing -- removing nets from waters burdened by too many boats chasing too few fish.

The downside, however, is that independent vessels might have less power to demand higher prices, and coastal communities and the state might collect fewer taxes on fish landed at the docks, Sedwick said.

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