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California and the West

So Much Tuna but So Few Buyers

Economy: Pacific Northwest fishermen face ruin because they can't sell tons of albacore. Canners prefer less oily Asian catches.

September 16, 1998|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT, Ore. — There's a low, rumbling sound coming out of the back of Tom Wraith's boat, and it's the sound of money--$30 a day, to be exact, the amount it takes to keep the freezer running so the 29 tons of tuna fish down in the hold won't melt into fish stew.

Because at this rate, it's going to be down there a while.

Wraith steamed back more than a week ago with his hold full of fish, plump white albacore--the kind of tuna a million mothers have spread on a piece of white bread for a school lunch--and for the first time that he can remember in 25 years of fishing, nobody wants to buy it.

He isn't alone. Up and down the coasts of Oregon and Washington, about 80 American tuna boats--a good part of the West Coast fishing fleet--are idle, their holds full from a summer of fishing and nowhere to unload their catch, thanks in part to foreign competition and a health conscious America.

"We're just stunned. What did we do to deserve this?" said Wraith, a Brookings, Ore., fisherman who grew up in San Diego. "We've basically just been left out in the cold."

Industry officials estimate that there are 7,000 tons of unsold fish waiting on boats throughout the Pacific Northwest. If alternate buyers aren't found soon, dozens of family-run operations could go broke in what has always been one of the world's most reliable fisheries, said Wayne Heikkila, general manager of the 600-member Western Fishboat Owners Assn., based in Eureka.

"It's a huge problem," he said. "The price keeps spiraling down, and as guys keep it on their boats, it's like watching the stock market fall and there's no way to take the money out."

A coincidence of events has left West Coast tuna fishermen for the first time in memory without a market for one of the bedrocks of the American diet: high-quality canned tuna fish.

While warm El Nino ocean conditions have rendered this season's catch exceptionally robust, the declining Asian economy has factored in new foreign competition that has virtually taken over American tuna fishermen's markets at companies like Chicken of the Sea, StarKist and Bumblebee.

This, combined with a growing American consumer preference for the lower oil fish caught by Asian fishermen, has left U.S. fishing boats on the brink of economic disaster.

While last year's catch brought in a healthy $1,600 a ton, fishermen this year have signaled a willingness to sell for $1,000 a ton, and still have few buyers.

"I've never seen anything like it, not since I've been fishing, and I've been fishing since I was 8 years old," said Tom Hochmuth, who is carrying 20 tons of frozen fish unsold in his hold.

"It looks to me like they're trying to do the same thing to the family fisherman that they did to the family farmer: trying to get everything into one big large lot," Hochmuth said.

The big three tuna companies, most of which can their product in American Samoa and Puerto Rico, have come to prefer the variety of albacore produced by "long line" fishermen from Korea, Taiwan and Japan: a whiter meat, lower oil product that produces the characteristic chicken-like fillet chunk preferred by many buyers.

However, long line fishermen have tended to focus most of their efforts on the higher-priced sashimi market in Japan. With the collapse of the Japanese economy, Asian fishing boats this summer turned heavily toward the American albacore market, quickly producing all that the canneries could use before American boats had a chance to offer up their product: a darker colored meat, higher in fat, caught on troll lines closer to the surface.

Debbie Bolding, communications manager for Star-Kist Foods, the largest tuna canner in the world, said the company bought 5% of its albacore from West Coast fishermen this year, compared to 10% in past years.

"When we have purchased higher amounts of this West Coast albacore, we have seen our consumer complaints rise accordingly," Bolding said.

American fishermen say their higher oil fish tastes better, is high in one of the most nutritionally valuable fatty acids available in the food supply, and is better preserved because it is individually caught and flash frozen, unlike their Asian counterparts.

No matter; at the moment, it's sitting in boat freezers in Newport, in Astoria, Ore., and Ilwaca, Wash.

With the American market in ruins, West Coast fish buyers are attempting to strike makeshift deals with European markets. About 7,000 tons of fish have been sold to European and smaller domestic buyers so far, but brokers say that many sales agreements have been delayed as prospective buyers wait for the price to drop further.

"It's just so ironic," Wraith said. "It says product of the USA on the can, but it's canned in Samoa and it's foreign-caught fish, while the American fishermen are going broke: What's so American about that?"

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