Plundering the Pacific : Gill-Netters Churn Up an Outcry

Times Staff Writer

In the South Pacific, they call it simply “the Wall of Death.”

Every evening at sunset during the summer fishing season, boats from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan unfurl spidery nets up to 35 miles long and 25 feet deep. In the morning, the nets are hauled in with a huge catch of albacore tuna and swordfish--but also sharks, seals, turtles, whales, dolphins and even hundreds of birds.

“In the seemingly endless expanse of clear blue,” an environmentalist who filmed the process said recently, “hundreds of fish hung strangely suspended in the water, like a wall of motion that had been suspended in time and space, the nets that held them all but invisible.”

The nets are called drift nets, or gill nets. The technology behind them was pioneered by a U.N. agency to help impoverished Asian nations turn a profit from what had been subsistence fishing.


Helpless Governments

But drift-net fishing has produced a region-wide outcry in the Pacific. Governments have looked on helplessly as their precious fishing resources have been vacuumed from the sea.

Environmentalists say the damage to sea life caused by drift nets is as great a threat as the depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere, the so-called “greenhouse effect.”

“We are witnessing the destruction of a precious resource in our region,” said Phillip Muller, head of the Forum Fisheries Agency, a group representing Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations. “It couldn’t be worse. It’s as bad as we can imagine.”

The drift-net problem also threatens to create new friction in the already-strained trade relationship between the United States, which imports most of the tuna, and Japan, Korea and Taiwan, where the main drift-net fleets originate.

Sanctions Looming

Under a 1987 law, Washington has until June 29 to reach agreements with the three nations for monitoring drift-net fishing in the North Pacific; otherwise it will be required to impose trade sanctions.

In the North Pacific, a vast fleet of 1,500 fishing vessels puts out an estimated 20,000 nautical miles of drift nets every day, ostensibly seeking to catch squid. But fishermen in the U.S. Pacific Northwest contend that the drift nets are intentionally catching huge quantities of salmon and steelhead trout--and this is illegal.


The Japanese have offered as a first step to station 32 observers aboard their drift-net fleet, but the proposal has been sharply criticized as inadequate by environmentalists and the Department of Commerce.

Drift-net fishing has proved so economically successful in the South Pacific that the fleet has been expanded from 30 vessels last season to 160. At the end of the North Pacific season last year, many of the boats moved to the South Pacific, where the primary fishing season is in the Southern Hemisphere summer of December through March.

“The concern of the island nations is the impact this will have on the fishing stock,” said Talbot Murray, a scientist with the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. “With just these 160 vessels the take will be four times the sustainable yield from surface fishing. If we can’t solve it very quickly, we’ve lost the key fishery for the South Pacific.”

The drift-net boats target 2-year-old tuna by keeping the nets near the surface and fishing in the relatively narrow feeding belt on the tuna migration route from south to north. Because tuna do not begin reproducing until age 5, the fear is that the depletion of 2-year-olds could destroy the South Pacific fishery’s ability to be self-sustaining.

At the end of May, New Zealand became the latest Pacific state to ban drift-net fishing from their waters, preventing the fishermen from refueling or transshipping their catch.

“The Pacific as a whole has about 30% of the world’s tuna stock,” New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer said in announcing the ban. “We know that gill-net fishing could collapse the tuna fishery if it is not controlled. If we let that happen, it is an indictment of all of us.”


The Pacific island states last year banned drift-net fishing boats from their Exclusive Economic Zone, an area extending 200 miles from their shores, and refused to resupply the vessels.

But the fishing is done in international waters 1,000 miles south of Tahiti, far from the prying eyes of individual governments. Within weeks, the Taiwanese fleets had circumvented the ban by arranging for mother ships to take off the catches and for tankers to provide fueling without the need to go into port.

Island nations are hoping that a comprehensive ban on drift-net fishing can be adopted at an international level, perhaps in the United Nations. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace have also called for economic measures by consuming nations--the United States, Canada and in Western Europe--against the countries using drift nets.

‘See Them Hobble’

“The way to deal with them is to cut their marketing legs off and see them hobble,” said Mike Hagler, the ocean ecology campaigner for Greenpeace in New Zealand. Hagler said his group is studying a range of options that include attempting to physically interfere with the nets in the South Pacific if a ban is not adopted.

Although the drift net has been widely used for two decades, little is known about the consequences of its use over a long period. Drift-net fishermen have been understandably shy of attracting publicity. Because most of their activities take place at night, it can be difficult to determine what actually occurs.

Much about the drift net was learned from the captain of a supply vessel that foundered after taking supplies to a group of drift-net fishing boats. Despite his pleas for help, the fishermen refused to aid him, and he took his revenge by reporting to the authorities.


The arguments against drift-net fishing include suggestions that up to 40% of the catch is simply wasted as the nets are hauled in and that huge quantities of fish not caught in the nets are damaged by them.

Peter Stevens, president of the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen, said members of his group, hundreds of miles from the scene of drift-net operations, are catching “a lot of fish that have been damaged by the drift nets.”

Damaged Goods

Murray, the New Zealand fisheries expert, said that between 12% and 19% of last year’s catch had been damaged by drift nets. In addition, the tuna caught in the nets are so damaged that the price for the drift-net catch is apparently slumping.

Less clear is the environmental impact on marine mammals, which are caught up in the nets unintentionally and are either taken with the rest of the catch or discarded.

A Commerce Department study submitted to Congress in May detailed the impact of just three commercial drift-net fishermen studied in 1982, 1986 and 1988. The three vessels caught 111 marine mammals, including 85 dolphins, 18 seals and eight porpoises.

A U.S. National Marine Fisheries study cited by Greenpeace said the number of dolphins caught accidentally in the North Pacific varied from 11,193 in 1982 to 5,797 reported in 1981. It said an average of 164,500 birds were caught in the drift nets each year from 1981 to 1984.


One of the few people who have witnessed drift-net fishing in the South Pacific at close hand is Robert Goldblatt, an American Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia, who served as observer on a Japanese drift-net vessel for a month.

Whales, Sea Turtles

Goldblatt reported that the Japanese vessel caught one dolphin, an endangered species, for every nine tuna it landed. It caught 11 whales and 10 sea turtles.

“A large number of fish were killed and then discarded because they were not marketable, spoiled or had been bitten by sharks,” Goldblatt said. “These ‘trash fish’ made up 16% of the total catch.”

He recommended that the states of Micronesia ban further drift-net fishing.

Another problem mentioned by Goldblatt and others in the region is “ghost fishing.” When a net becomes snagged or entangled, it is cut loose and drifts for days or weeks, until the fish and sea mammals caught in the net cause it to sink. These “ghost” nets are not only a threat to sea life; they also can endanger small craft.

There has been extraordinary political cohesion in the South Pacific on the drift-net question, but the ban on processing fish from the nets has placed considerable economic pressure on tiny island states that have invested heavily in fish processing plants.

“Canneries in the region would have to close down if there is no constant supply of quality fish species throughout the year, and this would mean loss of jobs and revenue,” Mitieli Baleivanualala, general manager of Fiji’s Pacific Fishing Co., told local reporters last month.


But as Muller of the Forum Fisheries remarked, if the drift net fishing is allowed to destroy the South Pacific fishery, the canneries, along with everyone else, will be even more harmfully affected.