Fishermen's Group Tries to Lead Fleet Through Troubled Waters

Times Staff Writer

On a drizzly day last October, a dozen or so U.S. Department of Agriculture officials huddled inside a room at the agency's headquarters in Washington to eat mackerel.

The taste team was treated to mackerel spread, mackerel loaf and mackerel barbecue--a sort of seafood sloppy Joe.

No one turned up his nose at the dishes, but the taste team did agree that mackerel, no matter how temptingly served or seasoned, would get a "Sorry, Charlie" from one group of eaters.

"They concluded they probably couldn't use it in the public schools," said Kenneth Ellington, a trade specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which catered the taste test. "The last thing they want to do is to give a child a product that may end up being tossed in the trash can."

Surplus Food

The test, Ellington said, was the "critical first step" in convincing agriculture officials that the spiny-finned Pacific mackerel should be added to the government's list of surplus food commodities to alleviate a glut of the fish--and provide a boost to San Pedro's small fishing fleet.

Indeed, the idea to get the Pacific mackerel put on the list came from the San Pedro Fisherman's Cooperative Assn., a group of fishing boat owners that for decades has worked out of a two-story building along the Port of Los Angeles' main channel.

Since it was founded in 1927, the cooperative has provided such services as negotiating fish prices with canneries and operating a marine hardware store for its members, many of whom followed fathers and grandfathers into commercial fishing.

In recent months, however, the cooperative, whose membership has dwindled to 30 from a high of about 170 in the early 1950s, has taken on a higher public profile as it attempts to shore up the remains of a fishing fleet battered over the years by tuna cannery closures, foreign competition, high liability insurance rates and, most recently, an oversupply of the fish that has become its livelihood--the mackerel.

Seeking New Markets

Under the direction of general manager Frank Iacono, a fisherman for 42 years before he retired seven years ago, the cooperative has been working with port officials, politicians and private firms, seeking new markets, planning its own freezing and storage facilities to gain more control over fish markets, and pressuring state and federal lawmakers to amend maritime insurance laws to bring policy prices down.

"It used to be you had to have a strong back and a weak mind to be a fisherman, but it's just the opposite now," Iacono said, referring to both the changing economics of the fishing industry and the new mechanical devices aboard boats that have eliminated many backbreaking chores.

The most visible display of the cooperative's efforts has been its involvement in a 22-member Fishing Industry Task Force assembled last October by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Since February, the task force, chaired by Iacono, has held three meetings to discuss ways to revitalize local commercial fishing operations. The group is scheduled to hold its fourth and final meeting in about a week, and soon thereafter to deliver its recommendations to the mayor.

The 64-year-old Iacono, who was appointed the cooperative's general manager in January by its board of directors, said that among the recommendations the task force will present to the mayor will be one urging him to support efforts to change maritime insurance liability laws, a move that has already received backing from local and federal politicians.

Under a resolution introduced by Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the harbor area, the Los Angeles City Council on March 12 urged state legislators to pass an emergency law creating an insurance industry pool to provide some form of coverage to fishermen who either cannot obtain it or are unable to pay premiums.

Cut Court Cases

Additionally, the council, through the same resolution, urged Congress to support the efforts of several congressmen to cut down on the number of court cases filed against fishing boat owners by crewmen. For example, earlier this month Congressman Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) introduced legislation that would limit the amount of money a fisherman injured on the job could collect to medical expenses and lost income.

Alyce Vlaco, a San Pedro insurance underwriter for the past 32 years, estimates that liability policy rates for fishermen have increased 100% in the last five years. And fisherman Nino Palma, who came to San Pedro from Italy 23 years ago and purchased his own boat in 1972, said his rates have more than tripled in the past five years.

Palma, who has had two claims filed against him by injured employees during those years, said he stopped fishing for three months last year while he shopped around for insurance he could afford. He finally decided to resume fishing without liability insurance after the cheapest policy he could find was $65,000 annually for $100,000 worth of coverage, he said.

"I just can't afford it," the 47-year-old fisherman said.

Besides working to decrease insurance rates, the cooperative is concentrating on ways to shore up and expand markets for mackerel, which in recent years has become the local fleet's predominant catch, accounting for 90% of all the all fish caught, according to Rick Klingbeil of the state Fish and Game Department.

Oversupply of Fish

Although the state lifted its mackerel quota last September--a move that allows fishermen to catch all the mackerel they want--there is an oversupply of the fish, a situation that has in the past year reduced the price fishermen receive by about $20 a ton, to around $154. At the same time, the National Marine Fisheries Service, in a survey conducted last year, estimated that local processors had 160,000 cases of surplus mackerel in their warehouses.

To ease the situation for fishermen, Iacono said the task force will ask Bradley to support an effort to abolish a state-imposed, $2-a-ton tax on mackerel. In addition, the task force will ask Bradley to lend his support to an agreement that the cooperative signed with the Port of Los Angeles calling for the construction of a fish freezer warehouse capable of storing 15,000 tons of fish, as well as a dry storage facility--a move that would allow fishermen more control over how much fish they can catch and when they sell it.

Iacono said the facility, which the cooperative would operate in conjunction with wholesale fish sellers, is important now that many local canneries, which traditionally provided fishermen with storage space, have folded. As a result, fishermen at times have had to store the fish aboard their vessels or stop fishing altogether until space became available.

"Years ago, it was easier," Iacono said. "You came in, unloaded and went home. Or you would go back out fishing. It's tougher today."

Hired Broker

The cooperative has also launched several efforts of its own to help the local fleet. Three months ago, for the first time in its history, the group hired its own broker to sell frozen mackerel to customers throughout the United States. Thus far, the broker has sold 1,500 tons. That equals the amount the cooperative's members sell to the local wholesale fish markets during an average week, Iacono said.

And although negotiations are at a standstill, Iacono said the cooperative is still hopeful that it can strike a deal through a Seattle-based firm, Marine Resources Inc., to sell mackerel to the Soviet Union under an agreement that calls for the Soviets to send a freezer ship to San Pedro. Initially, the Soviets intended to purchase 20,000 tons of mackerel, but reduced the amount to 5,000 tons, or about $1 million worth. The pact would have to be approved by the federal government.

The cooperative also is still hoping that the Agriculture Department will add mackerel to its list of surplus commodities. Dan Strombom, a development specialist with the fisheries service on Terminal Island, said that although agriculture officials believe mackerel would flop with school children, they think it would meet with approval of others, such as the elderly or poor. As a result, the fisheries service is developing inspection and sanitary standards for mackerel, the second of several procedures that must be undertaken before the fish can be declared a surplus item, he said.

Strombom added that the fisheries service, working closely with the cooperative, also is also attempting to open new markets for mackerel. For instance, he said, the service has held preliminary discussions with Japanese companies about the possibility of buying mackerel. And the service is working on developing new mackerel products, including a bite-size morsel that presumably would be just right for fast-food emporiums.

"It's kind of a like a Chicken McNugget," Strombom said."

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