TARAWA, KIRIBATI — MOMENTUM is building for a global ban on the controversial practice of drift-net fishing. Fifteen South Pacific nations have launched a stinging verbal and diplomatic attack on Japan and Taiwan for ``indiscriminate, irresponsible, and destructive'' drift-net fishing.
The ``Tarawa Declaration,'' produced last week at the 20th South Pacific Forum in Kiribati (pronounced Kiriboss), calls for a drift-net-free zone in this region followed by a concerted push for a worldwide ban.
It also praises Korea for recently vowing to stop its fishing boats from using drift-nets.
Similar to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the forum is the major political organization in the region. In recent years, it has produced the controversial South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty and secured a generous regional multilateral fishing access agreement with the United States.
Drift-net fishing dominated discussions at this year's annual gathering of South Pacific leaders.
Drift or ``gill'' net fishing involves laying strings of nets 30-feet deep and 20-30 miles long. The massive nets are left to drift overnight and then retrieved. About 1,000 Japanese and Taiwanese fishing boats use the nets, ostensibly, to catch squid in the North Pacific. A fleet of 190 (two-thirds from Taiwan) came to the South Pacific last season to catch tuna.
But the small-mesh nylon nets snare, and often kill, almost all marine life - dolphins, sea birds, whales and turtles. Environmentalists dub them ``Walls of Death.''
Last month, under the threat of US trade sanctions, Japan and Taiwan agreed separately to increased monitoring and enforcement of restrictions on drift-net fishing in the North Pacific.
The Taiwan agreement - which was reached a few days after the US Coast Guard went on a three-day, 600-mile chase after a Taiwanese boat - is the tougher of the two. It requires transmitters on 10 percent of the boats this year so they can be tracked by satellite, with 100 percent coverage by next year. It also allows US officials to board vessels suspected of violating the agreement.
For several years, Canadian and US coastal waters fisherman have pushed for a drift-net ban. They say Asian boats are reducing the salmon catch in territorial waters by overfishing the migratory juvenile fish in international waters.
Similarly, South Pacific countries claim, the drift-net boats took two to three times the sustainable yield of young albacore tuna last year from a major fishing ground east of New Zealand.
If this catch rate continues, Forum fishery scientists say, a stock vital to tiny island-nation economies could be destroyed in two years.
``It's obviously unacceptable that you can have a practice which ... if continued will wipe out the resource,'' said Australia's Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who initiated the ban.
On as sensitive a domestic issue as fishing, Japan says it can't move without more research. ``To take a drastic measure like total banning of existing fishing operations we need very concrete data,'' says Kiyoshi Araki, director of the Oceania Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
How long will it take to gather the data? ``Maybe one or two years,'' Mr. Araki says. He also admits the tuna caught is primarily for export, not to meed domestic needs.
As a Tongan official wryly commented recently, by the time Japan finishes its research, the fish will be gone.
Significantly, the Forum received tentative endorsement for its ban from Canada and Britain in a post-Forum dialogue meeting.
``We are spending $10 million (Canadian, US $8.4 million) over the next five years for ocean fisheries development in the South Pacific. It is a bitterly frustrating task to improve the practices of the subsistence fisherman and then have the resources cleared out by high seas drift-net fishing,'' noted Pat Carney, head of the Canadian delegation.
This was the first year a post-Forum meeting was held allowing non-member aid donor nations, including the US, Canada, Japan, Britain, and France to attend.
South Pacific leaders are encouraged by the support. Immediately following the meeting, Canada sponsored a US-Canada conference in Vancouver on solutions to drift-net fishing. And shortly, legal and diplomatic experts will meet in New Zealand to draw up the South Pacific drift-net-free zone Convention.