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Russian Factory Ship Snaps up Herring Scorned by United States

January 28, 1989

GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) _ A Soviet factory ship stationed two miles off the coast has been a boon to local fishermen who find herring plentiful but buyers scarce. Americans, they say, turn their noses up at the stuff, but the Russians have a taste for it.

″Years ago, every worker went to work with a can of sardines in his lunch box. Our eating habits have changed,″ said Spencer Fuller, president of Resource Trading Co., the Portland, Maine, company that set up the venture with the Russians.

Americans now eat less herring than ever, according to Robert A. Hall, who tracks seafood markets for the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 1936, Americans consumed 1.3 pounds of sardines, or young herring, per person; in 1987, that had fallen to 0.3 pounds per person, he said.

Russians, who figure they won’t fill their processing ship here until April, are the world’s biggest herring eaters, followed by the Eastern bloc countries, West Germany, and Japan.

The main U.S. market for the adult fish is pickled herring, a traditional German dish with only a limited following here.

Making matters worse, a boom in the herring export market turned to bust. In the mid-1970s, overfishing depleted the herring stock in the North Sea, Europe’s main fishing grounds, and a cheap dollar boosted demand, increasing the price of New England sea herring to $150 per ton.

Then the North Sea herring population rebounded, the dollar rose in the early 1980s, and the price of herring plunged to about $100 per ton. Canners and processors from Gloucester to Maine closed their doors.

″So what’s happening is, the herring stock is growing like mad, but there’s no one taking the fish,″ said Ambrose Alley, a fisherman based in Vinalhaven, Maine.

Alley said he is reduced to selling most of his catch for lobster bait, and the rest as food for zoo animals.

But lobsters are out of season, and the herring to be caught in January are 9 to 12 inches long - too big for seals, whales and dolphins, Alley said.

Alley sailed his 42-foot Night Owl to Gloucester last week, and has already sold 400 tons of herring to the Russian factory ship Sovetsk for $95 a ton.

″It means keeping busy,″ Alley said. ″It means making ends meet a lot easier.″

About four boats from Maine and two from Gloucester are fishing each night, weather permitting, and pumping their catch directly into the 330-foot factory ship, Alley said. With a crew of 91 men and three women, the Sovetsk can process and freeze about 80 tons of herring a day.

It will also buy 500 tons of frozen herring from Gloucester’s two remaining processing plants, providing an outlet for trawlers that snare herring while dragging for more profitable species, said Dan McKiernan of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, which approved the Soviet ship’s visit.

The total 4,500-ton haul will be worth about $600,000 to local fishermen and processing plants, Fuller said. The Soviets are paying in dollars. ″I don’t accept rubles,″ he said.

Maine has permitted two previous excursions by Soviet factory ships to process under-fished species.

The Sovetsk’s visit was approved by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in November after state marine biologists determined that its 4,000-ton catch would not deplete the herring stock, McKiernan said. Next summer, an East German ship will be allowed to take 3,500 tons.

Relations between the fishermen and the Russian crew have been friendly, said Paul Palino, a fisherman from New Harbor, Maine, who was invited into the Sovetsk’s captain’s cabin for a chat, through an interpreter, and a glass of vodka.

Fuller said he is trying to obtain visas for the ship’s crew so they can have shore leave in February. He said there is little fear of defections.

″The Poles jump ship like rats, but the Russians, it’s a good berth for them,″ he said. ″They get paid well, and they get to see the world. ... I’m trying to arrange for them to come ashore to shop at the malls and be capitalists for a day.″

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