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Industry Task Force Urges Action on Insurance, Subsidies : Legislation Called Answer to Fishermen's Woes

April 27, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

New state and federal legislation is needed if Los Angeles' beleaguered commercial fishing industry is to stay afloat and regain its health, a task force created to study the industry has concluded.

In a list of recommendations scheduled to be given to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley within the next few weeks, the 22-member Fishing Industry Task Force urges that the mayor and the City Council support efforts to change federal maritime law in an effort to bring a halt to skyrocketing liability insurance rates that have plagued fishermen.

The group will also appeal to Bradley and the council to support measures at the state level to subsidize commercial fishing operations and to expand fish loading and storage facilities at San Pedro and Terminal Island. The group said some of the money to pay for that expansion could come from the Los Angeles Harbor Department, which derives the bulk of its income from shipping companies and tariffs.

The recommendations are the outgrowth of four meetings of the task force in the past three months attended by both fishing industry officials and representatives of federal, state and local elected officials. Bradley formed the task force late last year to study ways to revitalize local fishing operations, which have been hard hit in recent years by cannery closures and changes in the kinds of fish caught. In recent years, membership in the San Pedro-based Fisherman's Cooperative Assn., a group of boat owners, has dropped to 27 from 170.

Frank Iacono, general manager of the cooperative and chairman of the task force, declined to speculate on the prospects for enactment of the task force's recommendations.

However, he noted that there has been some effort by several congressman to revise federal law, specifically the Jones Act, to lower fishermen's insurance rates. Boat owners contend that the act--which governs workers' rights at sea--should be amended to limit the amount of money a fisherman injured on the job can collect in medical expenses and lost income. Under the Jones Act, there are no such limits.

Another task force member, John Royal, head of the 200-member Fishermen and Allied Workers Local 33, predicted that efforts to amend the Jones Act could run into opposition. "It's going to be very, very difficult problem to overcome," Royal said. "The Jones Act has been kind of sacred over the years."

Royal also said he has "grave concerns" about whether the task force's other recommendations can be implemented in a timely fashion because some items will require bipartisan political support at the state level. The fact that Bradley is opposing Gov. George Deukmejian in next fall's general election could derail efforts to obtain such support, he said.

"We could be caught right in the political meat grinder," Royal said.

Of the recommendations, Iacono said those that could bring about a reduction in insurance rates are the most important. Besides amending the Jones Act, the task force recommends that the mayor solicit the support of the governor and the Legislature in enacting emergency legislation to provide some form of insurance pool that would provide coverage to fishermen who either cannot obtain it or are unable to pay premiums.

The task force also urges that the mayor and the City Council work to encourage joint agreements with other countries, particularly the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations, for the harvesting and sale of mackerel and that they support efforts to obtain federal funds under the federal Saltonstall-Kennedy Act to promote mackerel marketing programs.

In recent months, the cooperative has worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service to seek new markets for mackerel, which the local fleet has come to rely upon for its livelihood.

The task force also recommends that local officials support efforts to abolish a state-imposed $2-a-ton tax on mackerel and to extend a tax exemption on diesel fuel used by deep-sea commercial fishing vessels. That exemption is scheduled to expire in January.

Among other items, the group has asked Bradley to work with Mexican officials to ease the cumbersome process that fishermen now must go through to obtain licenses to fish in that country's waters. In addition, the group asks that such licenses be granted for 80 days instead of 60.

The task force also recommends that a fish loading and unloading facility be built at Terminal Island--a move that Iacono said would decrease the amount of money fishermen pay to local fish processors to handle their catches. The facility could be paid for by the Harbor Department, federal economic development funds or a combination of both, according to the task force.

The task force also asks that city officials seek financial support for the construction of a $15-million fish freezer warehouse and dry storage facility on 15 acres near the Ports o' Call shopping complex in San Pedro. The project is being developed by the Fisherman's Cooperative and local fish market operators.

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