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U.S. May Penalize S. Korea, Taiwan Over Drift-Net Use : Trade: Their fishermen are violating international accords. A total ban on seafood imports is possible.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration threatened Wednesday to impose sanctions against Taiwan and South Korea, possibly including a total ban on imports of seafood products, if the two countries’ fishermen continue their “blatant violation” of international agreements restricting the use of drift nets.

Raising the stakes in a 10-year controversy, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher formally certified that the two countries are in violation of 1989 agreements under which drift nets--so offensive to environmentalists that they are described as “walls of death"--are banned in the North Pacific.

Mosbacher’s action set into motion a 60-day procedure under which President Bush must notify Congress what, if any, sanctions he plans to impose. The stiffest penalty would be a ban on seafood product imports from the two countries.

Drift nets, which can stretch up to 40 miles, are made of fine, almost invisible filament that catch virtually every creature in their paths.

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A National Marine Fisheries Service survey last year revealed that just 10% of Japan’s drift-net fleet had killed 1,758 whales and dolphins, 253,288 tuna, 81,956 blue sharks and 30,464 sea birds.

The Commerce Department action, taken under the 1967 Fishermen’s Protective Act, is the first threat of sanctions over drift-net use since the agreements were signed. Last June, the U.S. satellite tracking system discovered 21 Taiwanese and 17 South Korean vessels using drift nets in the Pacific as far as 75 nautical miles north of the legal boundary.

In July, even after the Taiwanese and Korean governments were notified of the violations, the boats were still fishing with drift nets in the area. At one point, a Taiwanese enforcement vessel was seen near the illegal activity, but it took no action, the Commerce Department said.

“This blatant violation of our drift-net agreements by both Taiwan and the Republic of Korea is intolerable and cannot be ignored,” Mosbacher said. “It is clear we must impress upon Taiwan and the Republic of Korea our seriousness regarding illegal drift-net fishing operations.”

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Ben Deeble, who handles the drift-net issue for the environmental organization Greenpeace, said that the threat of sanctions “will send a signal, at last, that they understand.”

Taiwan and South Korea are the largest suppliers of albacore tuna to the United States. Last year, the United States imported $363.3 million in fish products from Taiwan and $334.7 million worth from South Korea.

In practice, sanctions are rarely applied in cases such as these, because the two sides typically reach agreement in time to avert them. Last June, for example, Japan agreed to a schedule for ending its imports of endangered hawksbill sea turtles after the United States had threatened to ban imports of Japanese animal products.

The sanctions threat “has been an effective way to get people in to discuss things,” Commerce spokesman Roddy Moscoso said.

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Meanwhile, pressure is building for a ban on drift-net use.

Last December, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on drift-net fishing by next July. The ban would be lifted only if nations using drift nets can scientifically prove that they have instituted “effective conservation and management measures” that eliminate the dangers that drift-net fishing imposes on other species.

Only two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill by Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) that would require the President to ban seafood imports from any country whose fishermen do not comply with the U.N. resolution. If that is not enough to compel their compliance, the President would have the option of extending the sanctions to other products.

Environmentalists have been complaining about drift-net use for a decade, but the issue picked up political momentum about five years ago, when fishermen in the Pacific Northwest began complaining that significant amounts of their salmon were being pirated by drift-net fleets.

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Salmon spawn in fresh water but spend much of their lives at sea, where they are vulnerable to drift-net fishing. Under international agreements, salmon are considered the property only of countries where the streams in which they spawn are located.

In the last five years, the National Marine Fisheries Service has seized more than 1 million pounds of salmon illegally imported into the United States to be “laundered” and exported as U.S. product.


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