Critics have denounced them as “the marine equivalent of genocide” and as “the biological strip-mining of the sea.” At issue is the growing use of so-called drift nets, which fishermen can leave hanging vertically in the ocean from buoys to a depth of 30 feet extending over 35 miles. As tons of fish are caught, they in turn serve as a lure for porpoises, seals, oceangoing turtles
and even seabirds—which then also become tangled in the nets and die. As well, concern is growing among Canadian and U.S. fisheries officials that North Pacific drift nets operated by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are scooping up millions of young salmon bred in North American waters. Said Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts: “A fundamental pirating of the oceans is going on. The entire ecosystem is being damaged on a wholesale basis.”
Last month, the first concrete program aimed at controlling the problem got under way when Canadian scientific observers began going aboard Japanese squid-fishing boats operating drift nets in the North Pacific. (Although drift nets are used in the Atlantic and other oceans, their most widespread use is in the
Pacific.) The agreement to post observers aboard the boats grew out of a joint U.S.Canadian government delegation to Japan in May. The delegates failed to persuade Japan to reverse the expansion of its fishing activities in the Pacific. But Japanese officials did agree to allow observers on board its vessels until Dec. 31, an action that will permit the observers to monitor the way the drift nets are used. Said
John Davis, a marine scientist with the federal fisheries and oceans department in Vancouver: “It’s a major start. It will give us quite a bit of information.”
Still, some critics of drift nets say that ultimately they must be banned. Currently, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan operate at least 700 squid-fishing vessels that set drift nets in the North Pacific. Each night, the boats set about 80 miles of clear nylon nets that are invisible under water. The nets are efficient for catching squid—and everything else that they encounter. Their mesh is designed in a way that lets fish push their heads through it, but catches them by their gills when they try to withdraw. Other creatures, attracted by trapped fish, perish as well. The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that about
850,000 seabirds become entangled in the nets and drown every season, while environmentalist organizations say that the nets kill tens of thousands of whales, porpoises, seals and other aquatic mammals each year.
At the same time, North American fishermen and conservationists say that drift nets could severely deplete Pacific salmon stocks. According to West Coast fisheries experts, an estimated 20,000 tons of salmon—equal to about 25 per cent of the annual commercial catch by B.C. fishermen—are caught in squid drift nets annually. Added Vancouver’s Davis: “What a lot of people suspect is that there are a number of vessels, particularly Taiwanese, that are ostensibly fishing for squid but are catching salmon. We have to have some fair amount of activity out there to account for the large amounts of salmon being offered at low prices on foreign markets.”
Officials in Ottawa say that posting observers aboard Japanese drift net boats may, at best, serve as a first step in controlling their use. Still, some officials in Washington opposed plans to place a small number of U.S. observers on Japanese vessels. Instead, they argued that more effective methods were needed to monitor drift net fishing. Steven Swartz, an environmental scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based Centre for Marine Conservation, said that it could be years before an international agreement to strictly regulate—or ban—drift nets is concluded. Said Swartz: “There is a general feeling that ultimately they should be phased out. A lot of countries see that fact as the end point of any negotiations, and so they are reluctant to even start talks.” Meanwhile, fishermen west of Vancouver Island reported last month that an eerie calm had settled over an area where they were accustomed to seeing seabirds, ineluding albatrosses and puffins. Bruce Petrie of Sooke, B.C., who has fished for salmon for the past 26 years, expressed concern that seabirds, walruses and whales that he used to watch while he fished have begun to disappear. Petrie added that drift nets may be the cause. He also said that drift nets are catching B.C.-bred salmon before they can return to their native waters. “What’s really horrible is that there is no selection,” said Petrie. “The drift nets catch everything.” If the opponents of drift nets are right, that situation could worsen until the controversial nets are at least subjected to strict international controls.
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