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Alaskans fume over US-Japan fishing agreement; criticize use of drift nets

Environmentalists and fishermen in Alaska are fuming over a new United States-Japan agreement aimed at protecting American salmon and other sea creatures from the ill effects of Japanese fishing methods. They charge that the tentative pact, which must be ratified by Canada before becoming effective, falls far short of the kind of limitations needed on the North Pacific operations of the Japanese high-seas fishing fleet. And they fault the US State Department for accepting minor concessions on Japan's incidental catch of salmon originating in Alaskan waters.

The tentative US-Japanese agreement, reached March 8 in Tokyo, is intended to reduce the number of American-spawned salmon ``incidentally'' caught by the Japanese high-seas fishing fleet in the North Pacific Ocean. It requires cessation by 1994 of operations of Japan's factory fishing fleet in international waters of the Bering Sea. It also calls for more American observers of Japan's activities within the US 200-mile zone and for cooperative research on salmon migration patterns.

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Edward Wolfe, the State Department's chief negotiator, characterized the pact as the best deal possible for the US. He said it means that by 1994 the Japanese will ``intercept'' 30 percent fewer American fish.

In pursuing Asian-spawned salmon in international and US waters, the Japanese fleets snare 1 million salmon and steelhead trout that originate in US streams. The fish are valued at $20 million to $40 million. If the agreement goes into effect, more salmon will return to Alaska to spawn or be caught by the commercial, subsistence, and sport fishermen of that state.

But critics say it fails to address ways to minimize the substantial environmental problems caused by Japan's high-seas fishery. Henry Mitchell of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association, explains that immature fish caught in the open ocean are from mixed stocks originating on different continents. The US requires that salmon be harvested in coastal areas as they return to spawn. This makes it possible to monitor the fishery.

Many observers are troubled by Japan's use of giant drift nets in the north Pacific. Each year the nine-mile-long gill nets entrap tens of thousands of marine mammals and hundreds of thousands of seabirds that are lured into them by the fish inside.

Put out at dusk, the huge nets passively drift with the seas until dawn, when they are hauled back into the boats. Greenpeace and others are upset that as many fish as are brought aboard are killed in the nets but tossed out before the drift nets are hauled in, said Alan Reichman of Greenpeace. He explained that some 3,000 miles of net are set each night when Japanese activity in the North Pacific fishery is at its busiest.

Besides salmon, Greenpeace estimates, small whales, dolphins, and about 5,000 Dall's porpoises become entangled in the nets and are killed each year. Nets set near the Aleutian Islands kill up to 750,000 seabirds annually, said Mr. Reichman. Nesting colonies of murres, puffins, auklets, and shearwaters are particularly hard hit, he added.

The drift net fishery is comprised of a high-seas fleet of four ``motherships'' and 172 catcher boats, as well as a land-based fleet of 209 vessels.

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Opponents of the nets complain about the amount of net thrown away or lost each year. Reports have been received by Greenpeace of entire nets cast adrift by Japanese fishermen after they've been seen fishing illegally in restricted waters. These ``ghost nets'' fish around the clock, until they become laden with fish and other animals and sink. The loss of 50,000 fur seals each year is attributed to ghost nets, Reichman said.

The Japanese say the alleged impact of their high-seas fishery is exaggerated.

``We don't have plans to change because we don't think it is so destructive a method,'' said Ichiro Nomura, a fisheries attach'e at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. As for the ghost fishery, Mr. Nomura dismisses the notion that lost netting continues to kill. ``When drift nets are lost, if any, they coil up and sink,'' he said.

The Japanese have staunchly resisted the idea that their north Pacific salmon fishery should be completely phased out, as many Americans suggest. ``Americans need to remember that our fishermen are after Asian salmon,'' Nomura said. But, Alaskan fishery sources point out, the ``incidental'' Japanese catch of American fish totals some 1 million annually. The total US catch from the north Pacific last year was 45 million salmon.

Japan conceded to US demands in 1978 that its fishermen move 225 miles to the west to avoid Alaska-origin salmon. But American fishermen pushed for a continued move west. ``We won't stop our efforts until the Japanese are at least out of the United States's 200-mile zone,'' said Mr. Mitchell of the Fishermen's Association.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups will continue to press for a ban on the use of drift nets, Mr. Reichman said.

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