Canada

Salmon stakes

Canada and the United States square off over fish

SCOTT STEELE,JOHN DeMONT July 21 1997
Canada

Salmon stakes

Canada and the United States square off over fish

SCOTT STEELE,JOHN DeMONT July 21 1997

Salmon stakes

Canada

Canada and the United States square off over fish

SCOTT STEELE

They are some of the first salmon to arrive because they have the farthest to go. Last week, the Early Stuart sockeye completed the first leg of their migration from the north Pacific and continued around Vancouver Island towards the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver. There, having survived a gauntlet of natural predators and fishermen, they began the final leg of a 16,000-km odyssey to their spawning grounds in the Stuart Lakes, northwest of Prince George.

But hundreds of thousands never made it to British Columbia. For the first time in several years, Washington state fishermen broke an informal agreement with Canada and intercepted a portion of the run as it passed through the Juan de Fuca Strait and into American waters.

The U.S. harvest—which began four days before Canadian commercial fishermen were first allowed near the Fraser— came after negotiations on catch limits under the Pacific Salmon Treaty collapsed in acrimony late last month. And as Canadian gillnetters set out for a 12-hour Fraser opening on the morning of July 9, they faced anything but a bonanza. “I caught only three fish in three net sets,” shouted fisherman AÍ Brown from the deck of his boat, Sea Deuce. Brown blamed seals for tearing holes in his net but, wiping his hands on a red rubber apron, he also expressed dismay with the Americans. “The bottom line is that you have to have a limit,” he said. “If you don’t know how many fish are getting to the spawning grounds, you’re playing with dynamite.”

But migrating salmon do not respect borders. The current impasse is centred on two linked issues: how much sockeye bound for Canada’s Fraser River should be allotted to American fisherman, and how many coho, which spawn in U.S. waters, Canadian fisherman should be allowed to take. While sockeye are not endangered, coho stocks have been dwindling sharply in recent years, prompting the United States to ask for reductions in Canada’s coho catch, together with new access to sockeye runs. The dispute escalated last week as B.C. Premier Glen Clark slammed the Americans for failing to come to a settlement. Predictably, the Amer-

WHAT’S THE CATC Ht

The West Coast salmon fishery: catch by species, number and value (both in millions), 1993 through 1996

ALASKA/ WASHINGTON STATE

BRITISH

COLUMBIA

Number Value

Number Value

COHO

SOCKEYE

7.8 $54.4 29.3 $131.3

19.9 $367.4 14.3 $134.7

SOURCES: CANADIAN DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES AND OCEANS, WASHINGTON AND ALASKA STATE AUTHORITIES

icans fired back, accusing the B.C. leader of political grandstanding.

At the same time, Clark was fighting a rearguard action against Ottawa over his May decision to cancel a lease that allows the U.S. navy to test torpedoes at Nanoose Bay, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, effective Aug. 22. The federal government has warned that such a move could provoke a damaging trade war. “If we start a linkage, the retaliation from the U.S. government may be negative to the economy of British Columbia, and maybe other provinces,” said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, who met with Andrew Petter, his B.C. counterpart, in Victoria last week.

But Petter remained unmoved. “Whose side are they on?” he asked. ‘What’s needed is for Ottawa to get tough with the U.S., not with B.C.” Getting tough itself, the B.C. government last week launched a $50,000 campaign of print and radio advertisements in Washington state, urging U.S. citizens to pressure officials into returning to the bargaining table. “Your state’s commercial fishing fleets began an aggressive assault on British Columbia’s Early Stuart sockeye salmon run, before the independent Pacific Salmon Commission could determine the true strength of the run,” Clark declared in the ads. ‘This action threatens the future of our Pacific salmon and is a blot on the conservation ethic of your state.” Although print versions ran in the Bellingham Herald, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, two Bellingham radio stations, KGMI and KPUG, refused to carry the spots, fearing they would provoke a listener backlash. Undaunted, Clark continued to defend his strategy. “I think anybody who has seen the ads could see they weren’t particularly provocative,” he said. “They were simply trying to say it’s important that we preserve the salmon for both our countries.” But Washington Gov. Gary Locke denounced the campaign. “It’s unfortunate Premier Clark is playing politics with salmon,” he said. “All the money spent on grandstanding will not protect our salmon.”

So far, such sparring appears to have had little effect. Both sides are still far from agreeing on the crucial issues. After the treaty talks broke down in late June, federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson accused the Americans of attempting “to rebuild their fish-

ery at the expense of Canada.” Both sides have announced aggressive plans for this year’s season that will allow fishermen to intercept more than the usual amount of fish bound for each other’s countries, prompting concern about an all-out fish war during the summerlong Fraser River sockeye run of an estimated 18.2 million fish—the biggest since 1913.

In a disturbing development for at least some Canadians, the American side acknowledged last week that it had surpassed its self-imposed quota of 85,000 Early Stuarts. According to estimates by the department of fisheries and oceans, American fishermen had taken 108,000 of the B.C. fish last week. By comparison, during their 12-hour opening at the mouth of the Fraser River, Canadian gillnetters pulled in a total of 107,000 Early Stuarts. Canada does not set a quota, but instead uses socalled escapement targets— the number of fish that should be left to travel upstream for spawning. This year, the goal is about 500,000. By the end of last week, about 260,000 fish had passed upstream, with officials reporting that at least 50,000 to 60,000 per day were expected over the next few days —out of a total estimated run of just over one million.

Meanwhile, the tough-talking Clark refused to bend on his decision to cancel the lease at the Nanoose Bay torpedo testing range. Although he acknowledged that the federal government could take steps to overturn the decision and try to expropriate the area, he downplayed that possibility. “It’s our jurisdiction,” Clark asserted. ‘We have every right to do it.” But federal officials are worried that the aggressive stance by Clark could chill relations with Washington. This week, Defence Minister Art Eggleton is to meet with Clark in an attempt to persuade the premier to soften his position, which could undermine an international defence agreement requiring a year’s notice to revoke. For the moment, however, Ottawa is still weighing its options. Catherine Lappe, press secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, stressed at week’s end that “absolutely no decision has been made” on the matter of expropriating the Nanoose Bay seabed.

Out on the Georgia Strait, near the mouth of the north arm of the Fraser, reaction to Clark’s tactics was mixed. Aboard Miss Katrina I, Terry Slack accused Clark of playing politics. “I think he has more concern for his public image than he does for the fish,” said Slack, who had caught only four fish although the Early Stuart commercial fishery had opened two hours earlier. Nearby, aboard the Morning Sun, fisherman Rick Smith said he supported Clark’s tough stance. “He’s trying, I’ll give him credit for that,” said Smith. “He’s making a noise anyway.” Whether it is loud enough to make a difference is something that many anxious B.C. fishermen are waiting to see.

JOHN DeMONT

CHRIS WOOD