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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > A Startling Fish Story

U.S. and foreign fishery firms are harvesting about one fifth of the fish resources available on an annually renewable basis off our shores.

This startling fact, contained in a recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report, contrasts starkly with the worsening news about world hunger and rising meat prices in this country and abroad.

How can the continual loss of this excellent source of protein from the ocean depths be explained?

Well, ask yourself how many kinds of ocean fish can you name — salmon, haddock, lobster, shrimp, tuna, scallops, halibut, and perhaps a few others.

But the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coastal waters are teeming with larger numbers of little known but edible and nutritious fish. They just don’t have the brand name recogni­tion.

FOR STARTERS, you could be enjoying more pollock, pacific hake, herring, anchovy, croaker, red crab, squid and dogfish. The Department of Commerce estimates that 3.6 bil­lion pounds of Alaskan pollock could be harvested annually compared to the 14 million pounds caught in 1973.

In fact, the amount of Alaskan pol­lock that could be harvested is 1.3 billion pounds greater than the entire U. S. harvest of all species of edible fish in 1973.

However, the fishing industry’s harvesting, processing and market­ing structure is not geared to the introduction of so-called “underuti­lized” species in the marketplace.

To do so would require a sustained
ability to build up a market of con­sumers large enough to satisfy the fishermen, the dockside handlers and the rest of the commercial stages of the industry all the way to the ulti­mate consumer.

ALL THE LINKS in this chain have to be commercially rewarded. The different segments of the fishing industry, wracked by the competition from foreign fishing fleets and slowed by their aging equipment, not surprisingly choose to stay with the popular brand name fish. As a result, such species as lobsters are being overfished and the harvests are pre­dictably declining.

The global consequence of such fishing practices is that many people will starve to death even though a few miles off shore there are abun­dant fisheries.

Two years ago, the Food and Agri­culture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations noted that with every pound of trawled shrimp brought on deck, there are six to ten pounds of unwanted fish. These are promptly thrown overboard.

The FAO’s conservative estimate is that 5 million tons of such fish are discarded each year from the shrimp boats.

EVERY DAY off our coast lines, fishermen are throwing overboard tons of edible fish simply because there is no existing market for them. Since consumer demand for fish con­tinues to grow, particularly as meat prices rise, the problem is how to market these fish products

Per capita consumption of fish in this country is still less than a fifth that of meat, which gives some indi­cation of the marketing potential.

For years, all kinds of ideas have been suggested. These include gov­ernment subsidies and loan guaran­tees for modern harvesting and processing equipment, the establish­ment of more producer cooperatives, and the pooling of advertising funds to “sell” little known fish species to consumers. Currently, U.S. fisher­men supply only one third of the ed­ible fish consumed by Americans; the rest comes from imports.

OVER THE YEARS government agencies, most recently the national Marine Fisheries Service of the De­partment of Commerce, have had minimal success in assisting the fishing industry to increase its har­vest from the seas of underfished species.

It is doubtful whether the service’s forthcoming national fisheries plan will provide an impetus to the gov­ernment’s efforts without a broader consumer recognition of what is at stake.

The GAO report summed it up well: “Developing the vast underuti­lized fish resources into commercial­ly viable fisheries would increase the supply of fish products available to the U.S. consumer, could help reduce the current large imbalance in our trade of fish and fish products . . . and could increase opportunities to export fish products attractive to foreign markets.”