Modest beginning
may lead to global
ocean discussion


Scientists and other experts are in Hawaii to discuss ocean and fisheries management.

ACKNOWLEDGING that substantial changes are needed, scientists, researchers and government fishery managers from 12 Asia-Pacific nations are meeting in Hawaii to seek strategies to stem the decline of fish populations. It is a small gathering to tackle a monumental global issue, but solutions and ideas may emerge nonetheless. It is a good beginning that could extend to a worldwide circuit.

A recent flood of reports and studies warn of the heavy toll decades of commercial fishing and environmental degradation have placed on oceans. A booming demand for seafood, advances in fishing technology, a lack of effective policies for monitoring catches and a mistaken notion that the bounty of the sea is infinite have so depleted stocks that even extinction, once thought impossible, is considered a real possibility.

In a Stock Enhancement of Marine Fish in the State of Hawaii (SEMFISH) project at Anuenue Fisheries, aquatic biologist Vernon Sato holds a jar full of 22-day-old moi.

Fishing industry representatives contend that commercial activity isn't the sole culprit, that damage from land-based and water pollution contributes to the dwindling supply. They are right. However, overfishing itself has so altered ecosystems that even after grounds are closed off, some species never return. In some areas, skate, sturgeons and other fish have almost disappeared, according to the American Fisheries Society.

International laws and treaties are easily bypassed or ignored and are difficult to enforce. Earlier this month, the Coast Guard intercepted two Chinese fishing boats northwest of Hawaii that were using 6- and 8-mile-long drift nets, far bigger than the 1.5 miles allowed under a U.N. agreement, to dredge tons of fish from the ocean. Although Chinese officers assisted in the enforcement, the case was unusual and punishment was left to China to determine. U.S. officials concede that many more illegal operations go on simply because vast stretches of ocean make evasion easy.

Even as the number of such commercially prized species as tuna and swordfish have declined dramatically -- to as little as 10 percent of previous levels, according to a Canadian study -- fleets are scooping up less desirable varieties that are made into fish sticks or feed for livestock and farmed seafood, like salmon.

Fish farms are touted as one solution to augment supplies of wild catches, but these, too, are problematic. Among the issues are displacement of native species, pollution from concentrated wastes and spread of diseases. Safe human consumption also is being questioned, as recent studies have found higher levels of PCBs, a possible carcinogen, in farm-raised salmon than in wild salmon.

The experts meeting at the East-West Center through next week recognize that the myriad problems cannot be overcome nation by nation, region by region.

"Unless there is a worldwide effort, the fisheries will continue to decline," said Ray Tulafono, director of American Samoa's Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources.



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