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Friday, July 31, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sea Shepherd Society Chases Its Flock On High Seas Of North Pacific Ocean

The two inky black ships watched by night as Japanese fishermen laid mile after mile of drift net in the North Pacific Ocean.

By the time dawn broke on July 12, what looked like a giant floating hair net stretched the equivalent of the distance from Tacoma to north Seattle, catching everything in its way: albatross, seals and squid.

The black ships moved into action.

One pulled in the net, freeing the sea life and birds, while the other set course to ram the driftnetters.

But one fisherman aboard a Japanese vessel refused to move aside.

He would be killed if the boat struck, so the attacker settled for severing the net and throwing eight vials of buteric acid - stink bombs - onto the deck of the ship.

This was the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's fourth expedition for drift netters, and it could prove to be its most critical.

As one of its ships, the Edward Abbey, is moored on Lake Union and awaiting drydock Monday, the crew of vigilante sailors is waiting anxiously to see if they wind up in court.

The sailors and their leader hope they do.

"The court is a more effective battlefield than the high seas," said Capt. Paul Watson, speaking from Vancouver, B.C. "But I think we succeeded in getting their attention."

Watson, a founder of Greenpeace, felt the group had grown too pacifist and turned high-seas vigilante in 1979.

The Japanese government filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department over the incident, Watson said.

Since the Edward Abbey docked here last week, a fleet of Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and FBI agents has been up and down the dock, in and out of the boat. So far, no charges have been filed.

Still, when the Sea Shepherd II rammed two Japanese vessels in 1990 - filming the entire event - the Japanese government never acknowledged the incident.

"We may damage their ships, but they're damaging the ecology of the entire Pacific Ocean," Watson said. "We'll do what we have to stop them."

His fervor has spread to the mostly young, all volunteer crew. The Edward Abbey, a 95-foot converted Coast Guard cutter, is expected to remain in drydock until Sept. 1.

Chief engineer George "Scamp" Moultan, 23, gave up a job managing a body shop in Norfolk, Va., to try to save the marine life he loves.

He pulled three albatross from the nets on this last excursion.

Kris Maenz, 26, of Missoula, Mont., who serves as helmsman and electrician, said she doesn't think twice about ramming a boat.

"We're enforcing the law; we're not breaking it," she said.

The Edward Abbey is equipped with a cannon, which shoots black powder - no lead - to scare off the drift netters.

The United Nations passed a moratorium mandating a 50 percent reduction in drift-net use as of June and a total ban by 1993. Watson and his crew say the biggest offenders - Taiwan, Japan and Korea - have no intention of complying.

In May, Watson said, his crew saw at least 40 new drift-net boats in a Taiwan harbor, sinking one of them by going aboard and flooding it.

Drift netting traps fish, which drown when their gills become snarled in the fine mesh. Other wildlife, such as birds and seals that dive for fish, also become trapped.

Most illegal drift netting occurs in a 1.62 million-square-mile area of the North Pacific south of the Aleutian Islands.

Young fish from the United States, Canada, Japan, the Soviet Union and China mingle there en route to their home hatcheries.

The Sea Shepherds have been called terrorists, criminals and outlaws, but Watson, 41, says no one has ever been injured during one of his raids.

JoAnna Forwell, a Seattle medical student and Sea Shepherd member who organizes protests and collects information for the group, said membership in Washington has grown to about 3,000.

Mark Cedergreen, president of the Westport Charter Boat Association, which represents 50 charters, said he and other fishermen are all for anything that stops the drift netters.

"The U.S. Navy ought to use those vessels for target practice," Cedergreen said.

Cedergreen said drift netters have hurt salmon, steelhead and albacore runs. Skippers report bringing in salmon covered with net marks.

Still, the Sea Shepherd remains out of the mainstream.

Riggers such as Seattleite Scott Munson liken them to cowboys fighting "for freedom of the range," but "when you're out at sea, the last thing you need is somebody trying to sink you."

Another rigger who asked not to be identified dismissed the group as "a bunch of radicals, runaway kids who need a place to be."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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