Uruguay first began to develop a fishing industry in the 1970s. Previously, fishermen from other countries had taken advantage of the rich resources off Uruguay's coast, but there was no concerted national fishing effort. The military government enacted the five-year National Fishing Development Plan in 1974 as part of its attempt to develop new economic activities with export potential. Under the plan, administered by the government's National Fishing Institute, fishing expanded markedly. By the late 1980s, there were over 700 fishing vessels in the fishing fleet, compared with only 300 in 1974. Furthermore, the number of large oceangoing vessels increased from five to seventy during this period. Oceangoing vessels held more fish and allowed longer voyages to distant waters. The latter capability became important after most nations (including Uruguay and neighboring Argentina) extended their exclusive economic zone from 3 to 200 miles in the mid-1970s, restricting access to many coastal fisheries. As the fishing fleet expanded, port facilities were improved. The port facilities of Montevideo, Piriápolis, and Punta del Este were modernized, and an entirely new port was constructed at La Paloma.

The intensified fishing effort produced favorable results; the catch grew from 16,000 tons in 1974 to 144,000 tons in 1981, remaining at about 140,000 tons per year in the late 1980s. Not all aspects of the government's plan were successful, however. It called for sizable catches of species that could be processed (canned) for export, such as tuna and sardines. As of 1987, however, fishermen were only catching a few hundred tons of tuna per year, not enough to supply a cannery. The sardine catch was also very small. Although those two species proved difficult to catch, Uruguay's fishermen had success catching Argentine hake, Atlantic croaker, and striped weakfish. The fish-processing industry also developed as the catch increased. Processing capacity in the late 1980s was about 250,000 tons, considerably above the estimated annual catch of 200,000 tons for all kinds of fish, except the anchovy.

About half of Uruguay's catch was exported during the late 1980s, in line with the government's goal of increasing nontraditional exports. Argentine hake (a whitefish similar to cod) was the leading export. In 1988, however, Uruguayan processing companies reported that world prices for Argentine hake had fallen below production costs because of the competition from cod suppliers. Although prices later recovered, many companies began to process and export alternative species, such as anchovy, mullet, and bluefish. The industry's exports reached US$81 million in 1987, as compared with US$65 million in 1986 and US$1.2 million in 1974. The United States imported 30 percent of Uruguay's fish; Brazil imported 23 percent; and Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), Saudi Arabia, and Israel each imported between 4 and 6 percent.

In 1990 an important issue for the Lacalle administration was Uruguay's access to the fisheries of the South Atlantic near Antarctica, as well as to fishery resources in Argentina's coastal waters. Lacalle told Visión magazine in early 1990 that he strongly supported the idea of an international conference, under the auspices of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, to regulate fishing in the South Atlantic.

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