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U.N. URGED TO BAN DRIFT-NET FISHING IF RATE OF `INCIDENTAL’ DEATHS PERSISTS

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The United Nations should move to ban drift-net fishing in the open seas if the practice continues to kill fish, sea birds and dolphins at the rate shown in a study, a U.S. official said Friday.

The deaths "from high seas drift netting continue to be of great concern to the United States," said William Fox, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."I believe we need the statistically reliable sampling that a program to be conducted this year will give us. But I also believe that if the trend shown in last year's pilot program continues, the United Nations must insist on an immediate moratorium of this practice," said Fox.

NOAA released a preliminary report summarizing figures for catches reported by nine U.S., five Canadian and 32 Japanese observers aboard high-seas drift-net vessels from June to December of last year. The study was conducted by agreement between the United States, Japan and Canada, he said.

The Commerce Department agency reported 59,060 albacore tuna, 58,100 blue sharks, 9,173 sea birds and 914 dolphins were captured incidental to fishing operations.

Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, D-Wash., said the numbers "confirm my worst fears - wholesale destruction of our marine resources."

"Perhaps most distressing, this new data has been withheld from the public and Congress for the past six months while the administration negotiated with these foreign countries to conduct more studies," she said.

"We don't need more studies. We need to ban high seas drift nets."

The agency said the pilot project covered only 4 percent of the Japanese commercial squid drift net fishery and did not include vessels from South Korea or Taiwan and so is not conclusive for the entire fishery.

The program is scheduled to expand this year to cover the Korean and Taiwanese drift net fleets and to have additional observers in the Japanese fleet. Altogether, the agency said, there will be three times as many observers as in the pilot program last year.

The United Nations, with U.S. support, has already recommended a ban on large scale open sea drift net fishing beginning in mid-1992.

Drift nets of up to 30 miles long have been used increasingly by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea in recent years to catch squid. The incidental catch of other species, especially salmon that originate in the United States, has caused protests from the American fishing industry.

In 1987, Congress required the Commerce Department and State Department to negotiate monitoring and enforcement agreements with nations engaged in drift net fishing in the North Pacific. Agreements for a two-year phased monitoring program were signed last year.

The nets are invisible to sea life as they float from a cork line, scooping down as deep as 50 feet.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said earlier that the NOAA data was based on reports from observers who boarded only 32 boats in the 460-boat Japanese fleet.

The House has approved a bill that would ban drift-net fishing and a similar measure has cleared the Senate Commerce Committee.