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Plundering the Pacific : Gill-Netters Churn Up an Outcry

June 21, 1989|CHARLES P. WALLACE | Times Staff Writer

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — In the South Pacific, they call it simply "the Wall of Death."

Every evening at sunset during the summer fishing season, boats from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan unfurl spidery nets up to 35 miles long and 25 feet deep. In the morning, the nets are hauled in with a huge catch of albacore tuna and swordfish--but also sharks, seals, turtles, whales, dolphins and even hundreds of birds.

"In the seemingly endless expanse of clear blue," an environmentalist who filmed the process said recently, "hundreds of fish hung strangely suspended in the water, like a wall of motion that had been suspended in time and space, the nets that held them all but invisible."

The nets are called drift nets, or gill nets. The technology behind them was pioneered by a U.N. agency to help impoverished Asian nations turn a profit from what had been subsistence fishing.

Helpless Governments

But drift-net fishing has produced a region-wide outcry in the Pacific. Governments have looked on helplessly as their precious fishing resources have been vacuumed from the sea.

Environmentalists say the damage to sea life caused by drift nets is as great a threat as the depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere, the so-called "greenhouse effect."

"We are witnessing the destruction of a precious resource in our region," said Phillip Muller, head of the Forum Fisheries Agency, a group representing Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations. "It couldn't be worse. It's as bad as we can imagine."

The drift-net problem also threatens to create new friction in the already-strained trade relationship between the United States, which imports most of the tuna, and Japan, Korea and Taiwan, where the main drift-net fleets originate.

Sanctions Looming

Under a 1987 law, Washington has until June 29 to reach agreements with the three nations for monitoring drift-net fishing in the North Pacific; otherwise it will be required to impose trade sanctions.

In the North Pacific, a vast fleet of 1,500 fishing vessels puts out an estimated 20,000 nautical miles of drift nets every day, ostensibly seeking to catch squid. But fishermen in the U.S. Pacific Northwest contend that the drift nets are intentionally catching huge quantities of salmon and steelhead trout--and this is illegal.

The Japanese have offered as a first step to station 32 observers aboard their drift-net fleet, but the proposal has been sharply criticized as inadequate by environmentalists and the Department of Commerce.

Drift-net fishing has proved so economically successful in the South Pacific that the fleet has been expanded from 30 vessels last season to 160. At the end of the North Pacific season last year, many of the boats moved to the South Pacific, where the primary fishing season is in the Southern Hemisphere summer of December through March.

"The concern of the island nations is the impact this will have on the fishing stock," said Talbot Murray, a scientist with the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. "With just these 160 vessels the take will be four times the sustainable yield from surface fishing. If we can't solve it very quickly, we've lost the key fishery for the South Pacific."

The drift-net boats target 2-year-old tuna by keeping the nets near the surface and fishing in the relatively narrow feeding belt on the tuna migration route from south to north. Because tuna do not begin reproducing until age 5, the fear is that the depletion of 2-year-olds could destroy the South Pacific fishery's ability to be self-sustaining.

At the end of May, New Zealand became the latest Pacific state to ban drift-net fishing from their waters, preventing the fishermen from refueling or transshipping their catch.

"The Pacific as a whole has about 30% of the world's tuna stock," New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer said in announcing the ban. "We know that gill-net fishing could collapse the tuna fishery if it is not controlled. If we let that happen, it is an indictment of all of us."

The Pacific island states last year banned drift-net fishing boats from their Exclusive Economic Zone, an area extending 200 miles from their shores, and refused to resupply the vessels.

But the fishing is done in international waters 1,000 miles south of Tahiti, far from the prying eyes of individual governments. Within weeks, the Taiwanese fleets had circumvented the ban by arranging for mother ships to take off the catches and for tankers to provide fueling without the need to go into port.

Island nations are hoping that a comprehensive ban on drift-net fishing can be adopted at an international level, perhaps in the United Nations. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have also called for economic measures by consuming nations--the United States, Canada and in Western Europe--against the countries using drift nets.

'See Them Hobble'

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