A San Pedro fishermens' organization selected what was meant to be a casual, dockside luncheon of grilled swordfish and pasta salad last Friday to send an urgent distress signal from the Los Angeles-based fishing fleet.
Those attending the event came ostensibly to inaugurate the Fishermen's Fiesta, a carnival held over the weekend to raise funds for area charities. However, the tone of the various speakers was far from festive.
In fact, the meal was much easier to digest than was the message that the local fleet faces ruin if government agencies do not intervene with either legislative or monetary support.
On a breezy afternoon alongside some decidedly weather-beaten boats, numerous local, state and federal officials heard, yet again, the sad tale of how the the San Pedro-berthed fishing fleet is just a skeleton of its former self. The story recounts the closure of more than a dozen area canneries and then details the dramatic decline in the number of fishing boats that ply these waters. Often told is the fact that San Pedro was once the nation's leading port in both the value and poundage of fish landed.
Economic Casualties Continue
During this harbor's heyday, there were 125 fishing boats based here, and at the height of the annual fishing season the number would top 400. Today the total is down to about 40 and the economic casualties continue.
"We're sending out an SOS and hope someone hears us before our ship sinks. . . . This is a precarious situation," said Ben Mattera, president of the Fishermen's Cooperative Assn. "We're looking for heroes."
Mattera, who still chases the Pacific for tuna, bonito and mackerel, said that highly subsidized foreign fish products are killing the U.S. seafood industry. He added that the domestic fleet is also hurt by skyrocketing insurance rates for boats and personnel and gets little federal assistance for marketing its products.
The leader of this dwindling group predicted if some sort of tariff on imported fish, or a direct government subsidy, is not enacted soon then the San Pedro fleet could be a memory within the next year.
Mattera insists that tariffs for imported fish are necessary, contending that extensive foreign subsidies make it possible for nations such as the People's Republic of China, Chile and Peru to sell their canned mackerel at significantly cheaper rates in New York than could any Los Angeles-based fishing and processing operation.
The assistance that foreign fleets receive from their governments takes many forms, but one that Mattera frequently points out involves the cost of gasoline in Venezuela.
Other Nations' Subsidies
"Most other nation's fishing fleets get some kind of government subsidy (for fuel costs). (The United States) is very lax in that," he said. "For instance, Venezuela sells gas to its fishing boats for six cents a gallon while we pay well over a dollar. Can you imagine that?"
Mattera suggested that one way to ease the current crisis is for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase domestic canned mackerel and distribute it to the needy in the same manner as the surplus cheese and butter program is now administered. He also feels that American fish products should be included in this country's hunger relief efforts in various parts of the world.
The fishermen's dilemma received a sympathetic hearing from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who was able to do little more than share their frustration. He recounted how efforts to aid the local fleet on both a federal and state level have been unsuccessful.
"We've gone to all types of agencies in a step-by-step process to appeal for help and have struck out," he said. "But so long as there is one boat left or one cannery remaining then we can't afford to turn our backs and let them go down the tubes."
Bradley announced at the luncheon that he would assemble a task force of fishing industry representatives and local officials from all levels of government to research the fleet's problems in hopes of finding some answers.
"I know the San Pedro fishermen are suffering tough times and that this industry is not what it once was. It's clear (something) must be done. . . . We're prepared to help," he said.
Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Harbor City) also related his unsuccessful effort to solicit federal assistance for the local fleet. He said that a bipartisan coalition of California congressmen recently lobbied the U.S. International Trade Commission for higher tariffs on imported tuna but was voted down 4 to 1.
"It's terribly important for this country to have a domestic fishing industry," Anderson said. "Seafood is an important food and we certainly don't want to have to get our fish from other countries. And we don't want to have them fish our waters for us."
Although Anderson strongly supports efforts to help the West Coast fleet in general, he says there are some problems that evade solutions. Increasing insurance rates are one.