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World Dawdles as Its Fisheries Decline

Nations urged to avert a 'global crisis' as fishing vessels defy protection laws.

As the sun sets over the Pacific, the scene at the commercial fishing docks along Yaquina Bay is a peaceful one.

Boat crews prepare their catch for the market - tuna, snapper, cod, and salmon, some of which will find its way into succulent dishes this evening at the Whale's Tale restaurant just up the street.

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Some fishermen are mending nets and lines or hosing off decks as seagulls cry for handouts. Sea lions loll along the piers, jostling noisily for personal space and posing for tourist snapshots.

But the international picture on ocean fishing is hardly this idyllic.

* Up in Alaska last week, two foreign vessels - one Chinese, the other Panamanian - were seized and fined for illegally receiving loads of yellowfin sole.

* To the south, the government of New Zealand is pursuing reports that Japanese fishing vessels have been illegally flying "flags of convenience" in order to get around international restrictions on catching southern bluefin tuna in the Pacific.

* In New Jersey, meanwhile, there's growing concern that the taking of millions of pounds of bottom-of-the-food-chain menhaden, used for bait, protein meal, and oil, could be disrupting the region's ocean ecosystem.

* Here in Oregon, the Bonneville Power Administration has just announced it will cost the federal agency as much as $721 million a year through 2006 to help save ocean-going salmon threatened with extinction in the Pacific Northwest.

Recent reports confirm that fish stocks in many parts of the world continue to decline as fishermen and countries compete for a valuable resource. In many places, fishing not only helps sustain coastal communities, but is also vigorously pursued as a source of corporate profits.

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Nearly 70 percent of the world's marine fish species are over-fished or fished to the limit of sustainability, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In US waters, the National Marine Fisheries Service has found that 96 of 279 fish species surveyed have been overfished or nearly so.

The Independent World Commission on the Oceans warned in a report earlier this month that "the explosive increase in human activity, growing global interdependence, and rapid technological progress are exerting a profound influence on the ability of ocean ecosystems to generate value for humankind."

"History's judgment of the present generation may be extremely harsh where the preservation of the oceans is concerned," said former Portuguese Prime Minister Mario Soares, who chaired the commission.

Reasons for depletion

In addition to government and international-agency warnings, private conservation groups in recent months have highlighted the causes behind what some are calling a "crisis" in global fisheries. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned last month that the world's fishing fleet is 2-1/2 times greater than what is needed to catch fish without depleting the resource.

Larger fleets and ships outfitted with sophisticated gear not only allow for bigger catches. They also result in a bigger "bycatch" - discarded fish and other unwanted marine wildlife that are simply thrown overboard, usually too traumatized to survive. By some estimates, about one-third of the annual worldwide catch of 93 million tons is bycatch.

Critics note that the world fishing industry is heavily subsidized, which adds to the impetus to overfish. In a recent study for the Worldwatch Institute, researcher Anne Platt McGinn found that such subsidies amount to $20 billion a year - between 22 percent and 38 percent of global fishing revenues.

Some nations have been pushing to extend their "economic exclusion zones" beyond the 200-mile limit that most countries have adopted in recent years. The purpose here is to prevent other countries from fishing inside expanded territorial waters while maintaining national access to certain fisheries.

Three years ago, the UN presented a treaty designed to reverse the world fisheries decline. The treaty would require greater international cooperation in managing fisheries, promote the use of nondestructive fishing equipment, and provide a dispute-resolution body to prevent "fish wars."

World consensus elusive

At least 30 nations need to ratify the UN Fish Stocks Agreement for it to take force. But so far, among the 59 countries that signed the treaty, only 18 countries have ratified it, including just four of the top 20 major fishing nations (Norway, Iceland, the United States, and the Russian Federation). "It looks like it's pretty much come to a standstill," says Ms. McGinn of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization will hold a conference on the subject next month. "Hopefully, we'll get a plan of action," says McGinn. "But the best we can hope for is a consensus document because the FAO is not an enforcement authority."

Meanwhile, countries are exploring a number of regional fishing agreements, says Scott Burns, who heads WWF's marine-conservation program in Washington. For example, island nations in the central and western Pacific are discussing the management of tuna fisheries with countries that have what are called "distant water fleets" - Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and the United States.

The nations may agree to place satellite remote monitoring systems on large fishing vessels to track their movements. Mr. Burns hopes the discussions "will establish a yardstick for other regional agreements."

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