Thursday, February 11, 1999

Hawaii waters a
key subject as nations
discuss tuna fishing

By Susan Kreifels


Hawaii is the most isolated land mass in the world, making this week's conference on conserving and managing tuna fishing in the Pacific Ocean especially important to the islands, a fisheries-management expert said.

The state is dwarfed by thousands of miles of high seas outside its 200-mile economic zone. But the many island nations in the western and central Pacific Ocean claim most water there as their own.

As these nations develop their own fishing fleets, they become more reluctant to allow foreign vessels to fish off their coasts. Foreign ships will then head for the high seas surrounding Hawaii, where tuna are fair game for anyone, said Jim Cook, chairman of the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council.

"There's no control of the guy upstream from us," Cook said. "Then we can suffer."

A 10-day conference started here yesterday on managing tuna fishing in the central and western Pacific.

Twenty-six Pacific nations sent 300 delegates to discuss what areas can be regulated, how many fish can be caught in the region, how fishing vessels can be monitored, and how regulations can be enforced. The countries are responding to a 1995 United Nations agreement to conserve fish and resolve fishing disputes peacefully. Delegates said they hope to prevent the overfishing that has depleted other areas.

Tuna are still well-stocked in the region, the richest tuna-fishing waters of the world, and that's attracting fishing fleets from elsewhere.

Spain is taking a big interest in the Pacific, Cook said. "What's to keep them from fishing here?" he asked.

Cook said about half the tuna caught by Hawaii-based fishing vessels are caught in the state's 200-mile economic zone, and the other half in the high seas. Hawaii's current annual catch totals 5,363 metric tons worth about $29.6 million and employing 2,350 people.

The 35-person U.S. delegation includes Cook and three others from Hawaii-based agencies. Although the U.N. agreement recognizes traditional and subsistence fishing, the delegation does not include representatives of indigenous populations such as native Hawaiians.

But Mary Beth West, a State Department official who heads the U.S. delegation, said the idea was worth considering.

State Department official Brian Hallman said native Hawaiians have not requested to be on the delegation. Hallman also said the issues discussed in the conference would probably not impact native fishing rights.

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