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."
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.