WASHINGTON — Legislators from the Pacific Northwest are calling for a congressional investigation into reports that Japanese ships have been fishing illegally in U.S. waters.
A Japanese official, meanwhile, said Tuesday that his government would investigate the matter and impose "serious penalties" if the allegations are true.
"If these allegations are true, millions of pounds of fish could be lost to the U.S. fish harvesting and processing industry," Rep. Mike Lowry (D-Wash.) said Tuesday. "We will not tolerate this."
Lowry, along with Rep. Don Bonker (D-Wash.) and Rep. John Miller (R-Wash.), called for a probe by a subcommittee of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee.
Washington Republican Sen. Dan Evans said he was well aware that not only Japanese but other foreign fishing vessels had been spotted in U.S. waters.
Seek Tougher Penalties
"I intend to urge strong action by the Administration," Evans said.
Seven Japanese factory ships were videotaped from a private jet last week about 38 miles inside the 200-mile U.S. fishery zone, northwest of Adak in the Aleutian Islands.
The jet was chartered by the director of the Alaska Factory Trawlers Assn., which is based in Seattle, and the president of a Seattle-based fish company.
Ted Evans of the trawlers association said the findings will be presented this week at a meeting of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council in Anchorage, Alaska. U.S. fishermen will seek tougher penalties against foreign ships caught fishing illegally and will also seek increased Coast Guard surveillance, he said.
"If foreign vessels do fish illegally inside our waters, they are taking fish from our fishermen," Miller said in a letter to the chairman of the Fisheries, Wildlife Conservation and Environment Subcommittee.
"These videotapes and other information raise serious questions about our current enforcement efforts."
The Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service have launched an investigation and asked for copies of the videotapes.
Japanese officials were called to the State Department on Friday and asked for an explanation.
"We did tell the Japanese Embassy we considered this a serious incident and asked them for information," said Alex Almasov, a State Department spokesman. "We have not gotten a response."
$2-Billion Haul Estimated
Yasuo Endo, counselor on fisheries at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, said his government would be "extremely concerned" if there were any violations.
"I sent an urgent cable to my government asking them to investigate," Endo said Tuesday. "We will take any action necessary to find out whether the alleged case is fact or not. If it is true we would impose serious penalties."
Northwest fishermen have long complained that foreign vessels were illegally fishing U.S. waters.
Glacier Fish Co. President Sam Hjelle, who helped pay for the jet flight, said he believes that as much as 5 million metric tons of unreported fish worth up to $2 billion may have been caught in the north Pacific last year.
That is more than twice the catch that U.S. scientists have said would be a biologically acceptable harvest, he said.
Hjelle said the size of the boats videotaped indicated that they were fishing for halibut, turbot or black cod.