ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The owners of several Bering Sea pollock fishing boats are challenging a 1998 federal law that requires the vessels to be predominantly owned by American citizens by later this year.
The owners say that under terms of post-World War II free-trade treaties, their Japanese, Korean and Danish partners should not have to give up their investments in the U.S. fishing boats.
But squeezing out foreigners from U.S. commercial fisheries was the aim of the American Fisheries Act of 1998. The law was the latest in a string of efforts by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, to reserve for Americans the rich fishing resources in the 200-mile zone around the coastal United States.
Previous laws had loopholes that let substantial foreign ownership continue in the fleet, particularly in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. The pollock fishery is the largest fishery in the United States by volume. The annual Bering Sea pollock haul is worth about $700 million after processing.
The American Fisheries Act mandates that all boats longer than 100 feet and fishing in U.S. waters be 75 percent owned by American citizens by Oct. 1. Lenders that finance the boats also must meet that standard.
The act, however, provides for an exemption in cases where the citizenship standard ''is determined to be inconsistent with an existing international agreement relating to foreign investment.''
Owners of several large fishing vessels are now petitioning a federal agency, the Maritime Administration, for a ruling on whether their foreign investors must shed their interests in the boats. The owners cite treaties of friendship, commerce and navigation between the United States and Japan, South Korea and Denmark.
The Maritime Administration is expected to make a ruling on the first of seven petitions, involving a total of 14 boats, by March 15.
The act affects more than 500 large fishing boats nationwide, many of them operating off Alaska.
William Myhre, a maritime attorney in Washington, D.C., said he's unsure whether the boat owners petitioning the Maritime Administration will prevail. However, over time, he said, he believes the act will greatly increase American ownership in the pollock and other fleets.
In fact, Myhre said he's already worked on numerous cases in which foreign owners have sold their shares to Americans or boats have changed hands altogether.
Last year, the Norwegian owners of American Seafoods, the largest operator of Bering Sea factory trawlers, sold out to American investors, including some Alaska-based companies.
Even if the Maritime Administration grants the petitioning boats an ownership exemption, it could limit them in other ways, such as forbidding contracts requiring a boat to deliver all of its catch to a foreign packer, Myhre said.
''These are not the old days where somebody can sort of wink and hide their foreign partner,'' he said.
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