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Detente on the high seas U.S.-Soviet fishermen swap vodka, Sears catalogues

By LINDA KILLIAN

RAYMOND, Wash. -- Participants in a joint Soviet-American fishing venture in the Pacific say politicians could learn a lesson from the partnership that is helping the West Coast fishing industry stay afloat.

At a time when many types of fish are in short supply and market demand is depressed, U.S. fishermen are working steadily and making good money supplying the Soviets with millions of tons of fish that, as one fisherman said, would otherwise 'die of old age.'

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And the trading is not limited to fish.

Occasionally the Soviets will invite the Americans aboard for 'planning meetings' that involve a lavish feast -- whiting is served, of course -- and souvenir trading.

The Soviet sailors particularly like Sears catalogues. 'They absolutely don't believe you can order out of it and get what you ordered,' said one sailor. In turn they give the Americans vodka, Armenian cognac and Soviet champagne.

Under the venture, American fishermen catch Pacific whiting, a mild-tasting fish much more popular in the Soviet Union than in the United States, and turn it over to Soviet processing ships off the coast. The Soviets pay for the fish by delivering cod, herring, salmon caviar, King crab, squid and shrimp to world markets, with money from the sales going to the Americans.

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This year there are 16 American catcher boats and 14 Soviet processing ships working with one another from the northern California coast to waters off northern Washington.

The operation is the only such Soviet-U.S. business partnership that has succeeded, said H.A. 'Bert' Larkins, the American general manager of Marine Resources Inc., a Seattle-based company with a branch office in Nahodka in the Soviet Union.

Larkins predicts that during the six-month season that runs from late May through October, the fleet will catch 350 million pounds of fish.

It will be worth about $12 million this summer to U.S. fishermen, and although the costs of outfitting a trawler are extremely high, it is lucrative fishing compared to what many boats are encountering this season.

The partnership is a 50-50 equity joint venture between Bellingham Cold Storage of Bellingham, Wash., and Sovrybflot, a fishing enterprise of the Soviet Ministry of Fisheries.

Barry Fisher of Newport, Ore., who has two boats in the fishery, said although there are joint fishing ventures with other countries, he considers the U.S.-Soviet operation one of the best.

'We've done well,' Fisher said, adding that the partnership is prospering more every year.

Fisher said the Soviets are 'honest and they honor their obligations.'

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'Once you reach an accord with the Soviets, they live up to it,' Fisher said. 'They've been damned good partners.'

Fisher has visited fishery officials in the Soviet Union several times and says he doesn't like the way they do things, but when it comes to fishing, 'We get along beautifully.'

By an act of Congress in 1978, foreign countries are forbidden to fish within 200 miles of the U.S. coast. But there are exceptions for fish that Americans do not want. Foreign fleets are allowed to fish for these species under officially authorized agreements.

Such an agreement was reached with the Soviet Union that year off the Oregon coast. Two American trawlers and two Soviet freezer-trawlers began the partnership, fishing for whiting. The fish is seldom used in this country except in some fish cake and fast food restaurant preparations.

The partnership became more important to the Soviets when President Carter revoked their fishing rights following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Although they could no longer fish, the Soviets could continue to process fish caught by the American trawlers.

That turn of events also benefited the Americans, now able to increase their fish catches for the Soviets who were no longer allowed to fish in American waters themselves but were allowed to station mother ships there to trade with American trawlers coming alongside.

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Despite its success, the joint venture is not without controversy. According to government officials, the future of the operation hinges on the future of U.S.-Soviet relations.

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