Agreement at Last on Drift Nets

December 25, 1991

Score one for the environment in Japan's decision to comply with a United Nations moratorium on fishing with drift nets. The nets, extending as much as 40 miles across the ocean, have been denounced as "walls of death" for marine life such as dolphins, whales, turtles and fish species. Japanese fishermen boosted their use of the nets to catch flying squid, a delicacy in their country, after international rules barred harvesting salmon in the open ocean. Salmon, a migratory fish, now can be harvested in the coastal waters near their spawning grounds, areas vigorously policed and usually restricted to nationals of the host countries.

Japanese leaders argued that a ban would idle 10,000 fishery workers and sharply curtail the prospects for the 50,000 workers in its fish processing industry. And despite complaints about the carnage among species unintentionally caught in the drift nets, they said, the claims were more apparent than real.

But with growing attention on the depletion of entire species of ocean fauna such as Atlantic bluefin tuna and Australian lobster, economic claims to justify wholesale assaults on marine resources are meeting harsh rebuttals. The United States, prodded by environmental groups and scientists, led a drive to ban the use of drift nets by next July. Targeted were not only Japan, but also Taiwan, which has 10,000 drift-net fishermen, and South Korea, which has 4,500.

In the U.S. Congress, proposals are in preparation to bar Japan's marine imports should it continue to refuse to honor a U.N. drift-net ban. If a drift-net ban posed difficulties for Japan's fisheries interests, an import ban would have made them much worse. That may be why the Japanese agreed to end drift-net use by the end of next year. The Koreans now say they want more time, while Taiwan has said it will comply with the 1992 deadline. That is a decided victory for those who care about the health of the Pacific Ocean, a vital resource for people and wildlife all over the world.

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