Worldwide fish depletion sparks gunboat diplomacy over share of the catch

THIS week, Russian patrol boats fired on three Japanese fishing boats in disputed waters near the Kurile Islands.

Two weeks ago, Spanish fishermen reportedly fired on French trawlers in the Bay of Biscay, wounding one Frenchman.

And last month, in what US officials called an act of ``piracy,'' Canadian officials armed with M-16s seized two American fishing boats in international waters for ``illegal'' scallop fishing.

After decades of warnings from scientists, world fish catches are reaching record lows, and once-routine disputes over fishing rights are turning increasingly violent.

Many of the world's most productive fishing grounds, long-viewed as inexhaustible resources teaming with life, have been fished to their limits. Overfishing - the catching of so many fish that too few are left to reproduce - has made fishing no longer economically viable in many of the world's coastal communities.

This week, delegates from around the world will conclude a United Nations conference in New York on fish stocks that cross, or straddle, international borders. Organizers hope to lay the groundwork for a complex, worldwide treaty governing the catch of cod, swordfish, tuna, and other fish that migrate and the actions of large ``factory'' fishing boats that roam the far corners of the oceans.

But scientists warn that more than 90 percent of fish are caught inside each country's 200-mile territorial limit, and only strict quotas by coastal nations like the US will prevent a long-term industry collapse.

Next month, Congress will reauthorize the Magnuson Act, originally drafted in the mid-1970s to regulate US fishing. Conservationists, and now some fishermen's groups, say the US should revamp its management system and consider matching Canada's controversial ban on fishing depleted fish stocks inside and outside the 200-mile limit.

According to the UN Food and Agricuture Organization (FAO), fish catches in 13 of the world's 15 major fishing regions have fallen since 1989. Only stocks in the Indian ocean are rising, reflecting long-term worldwide overfishing that scientists estimate the oceans may take decades to recover from.

After enjoying record-growth and record profits since World War II, the $70-billion worldwide fishing industry faces a bleak future. Bans to replenish depleted stocks could force a majority of the word's 20 million small-scale fishermen out of business.

The current crisis marks the continuing failure of nations, regional agreements, and the UN's Treaty of the Seas - drafted in 1982 and still not ratified by the US Senate - to effectively manage the seas. The wide-ranging treaty established a 200-mile ``exclusive economic zone'' along each country's coast.

But during the 1970s and 1980s, few countries enacted fishing restrictions in their waters. Instead, governments worldwide currently provide $54 billion in subsidies to fishermen who catch $70 billion worth of fish. Conservation groups estimate that the world fishing industry is twice as large as needed.

``The fishing agencies have failed to be aggressive enough,'' says Brian Gorman, spokesman for the US National Marine Fisheries Service. ``Until we put new management plans into effect... we will always have a system that encourages individual fishermen to go out and catch the last fish.''

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