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Japan Casts Nets In Troubled Waters. Some South Pacific nations now are denying fishing access to their northern neighbor. TUNA CONTROVERSY

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ENTANGLED in a web of fishing issues, Japan's image in the South Pacific is suffering. Japan considers the South Pacific its back yard. It's a crucial source of food and holds potentially vast seabed mineral resources. But even as Tokyo boosts aid to the region, it seems slow to expend diplomatic capital in resolving two controversial issues: fishing access rights and gill netting.

The longest running dispute is over a regional fishing-access pact favored by South Pacific nations but opposed by Japan. Neither side has budged, and a string of Pacific micro-states have refused to renew Japan's tuna-fishing rights.

Papua New Guinea canceled in 1987. Tuvalu and the French Pacific Territories (including New Caledonia and French Polynesia) followed suit last year. Each now denies Japanese boats access to fishing grounds within their sizable exclusive economic zones. Several more island nations will decide to renew or cancel in the coming months.

The island states are willing to give Japan low access fees, but they also want closer scrutiny of catches and contractual guarantees. Japan thinks it can get better terms by negotiating on a country-by-country basis.

Japanese fishermen argue they can't afford even a small increase in access fees. They say their tuna market is static and costs keep rising. Despite the loss of income, the tiny, aid-dependent nations are standing together on this one.

``Why should we subsidize the biggest fishing fleet in the world?'' asks Philip Muller, director of the Forum Fisheries Agency, based in Honiara, Solomon Islands. The agency, funded by the South Pacific Forum, is currently negotiating on behalf of most of the countries in the South Pacific.

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