Canada

Scaling down the B.C. salmon wars

Ottawa tries to cool U.S. reactions to Glen Clark

August 11 1997
Canada

Scaling down the B.C. salmon wars

Ottawa tries to cool U.S. reactions to Glen Clark

August 11 1997

Scaling down the B.C. salmon wars

Ottawa tries to cool U.S. reactions to Glen Clark

From Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, Steveston to Sooke, the British Columbia salmon fleet was primed for action. Aboard big seiners, crews topped up fuel in the small outboard-driven boats the mother ships send out to encircle entire schools of fish with nets. Trailers checked the heavy lines, barbed with multiple hooks, that trail from outriggers hung to port and starboard. Gillnetters inspected the mesh wrapped on huge spools on their decks, looking for holes a salmon might slip through. In all, people on more than 3,000 boats waited for federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson to give the order that would unleash them on tens of millions of migrating sockeye. Their goal: to sweep as many as 80 per cent of the silvery fish out of the sea before the sockeye rounded the coast of Vancouver Island—passing temporarily through U.S. waters—on their way to the Fraser River. Said John Radosevic, president of the United Fish and Allied Workers Union: “There will be a wellplanned Canada-first fishery of Canadian sockeye before they hit southern waters, so they don’t get into American nets.”

But as another week ended without a resolution in the West Coast salmon war, there was a palpable drop in the intensity of the crisis. The lowered temperature was due in part to the biology of the salmon—and because the people who earlier blockaded an Alaskan ferry for three days in Prince Rupert could now prepare to take out their frustrations on the teeming sockeye run instead. Meanwhile, Anderson shuttled between Ottawa, Washington,

Seattle and Vancouver, in a series of meetings designed to restart talks over the deadlocked Pacific Salmon Treaty. But perhaps the biggest factor encouraging cooler heads was the departure of outspoken B.C. Premier Glen Clark for a longweekend break at his family’s Okanagan valley cottage. Clark, known as “Premier Testosterone” among cabinet aides, took the time-out after wrapping up his government’s first full legislative session since the NDP was re-elected last year— and before heading off for the Aug. 6 to 8 premiers’ conference in New Brunswick.

In addition to the standoff over fish, Clark also faces homegrown problems ranging from foundering legislation to a deeply alienated business community. As spokesman Tim Pearson put it: “He is going to take a few days to chill out.”

From the standpoint of federal and U.S. officials, the B.C. premier’s retreat to the family barbecue was welcome. Anderson spent much of his time last week working to defuse American anger over Clark’s heated rhetoric and his support for last month’s ferry blockade. The federal minister met in Seattle with the governors of the two front-line American states involved in the salmon crisis, Alaska and Washington, but the U.S. leaders pointedly did not invite Clark to the talks.

Even without the B.C. leader, negotiations remained stalled. Canadians continue to insist that American—mainly Alaskan— vessels illegally scooped close to 400,000 Canadian sockeye over a three-week period last month as they approached B.C. waters. In recent years, the Alaskan fleet has been limited to about 120,000 sockeye. Alaska’s Gov. Tony Knowles refused to back away from his state’s contention that the U.S. catch was unintentional and legitimate. In response, Anderson gave approval in principle to a vigorous so-called Canada-first sockeye fishery that could begin as early as Aug. 9. Federal officials and fishers both insisted that enough sockeye would be allowed to enter the Fraser River to ensure spawning. But Radosevic said that the Canadian fleet was poised to intercept as many as possible of those fish whose route to the Fraser takes them briefly through Washington state waters around the southern tip of southern Vancouver Island.

Despite diplomatic denials, the intent of the Canadian strategy was plain: to put pressure on the states of Washington and Oregon to turn up the heat on Alaska to reach a settlement. ‘We’re not out there to ruin their fishery,” Anderson insisted in an interview with Maclean’s. “You cannot punish Washingtonians for what Alaskans do.” Moments later, though, Anderson acknowledged that he hopes the aggressive Canadian fishing makes a point in the two states to the south, where fishers rely on a substantial share of Fraser River sockeye. “Our objective,” Anderson insisted, “is to maximize fishing opportunities for Canadians. If that results in opportunities for others being less, well that is the inevitable result of being down-water. We’re down-water from Alaska and we suffer from their overfishing. Washington and Oregon are down-water from us. That’s why we need a treaty.”

The federal minister conceded he has given up hope of resolving the dispute before the end of the current fishing season in September. Instead, Canada is pinning its hopes on the work of two mediators named late last month to study the issue, and on a so-called Salmon Summit that will bring Anderson, Alaska’s Knowles and Washington state Gov. Gary Locke to the bargaining table later this fall. Clark has not been invited to the meeting.

But if the premier appeared increasingly isolated from both Ottawa and his American neighbors, he had reasons for satisfaction. Despite a string of political setbacks, to say nothing of a faltering provincial economy, the legislative session ended with Clark’s

New Democrats facing no significant threats from a weak and divided opposition. The government managed to pass two related bills last month extending the rights of same-sex couples, but in other areas, the NDP has been forced to retreat. A revolt within the party’s own ranks forced Clark’s cabinet to abandon plans to allow Las Vegas-style casinos on the Vancouver waterfront. An election promise to implement nofault auto insurance foundered in the face of an intense lobbying campaign by private insurers and the legal profession.

Those setbacks paled, however, beside the collapse of proposed changes to the B.C Labor Relations Code. Considered a critical election promise by organized labor, the reforms would have imposed industry-wide bargaining on the construction business and made it harder for employers to avoid unions by switching to contract service suppliers. Business groups bitterly opposed the changes—and late last month the government withdrew the legislation and appointed two panels to study its impact. “Rather than pass the bill and try to convince everybody that it’s fair and balanced,” Clark explained, “it’s prudent to step back and take a second look.” British Columbia’s private sector, by and large, remains unmollified. “The government has declared war on business,” declared D’arcy Rezac, managing director of the Vancouver Board of Trade. “And the government is winning. Business is retreating.” By several important measures, so is the B.C. economy. Although overall output is expected to grow this year by close to two per cent, per capita gross domestic product has fallen in six of the past seven years. So, for most of the 1990s, have real personal income and business investment in the economy. Almost six years after the NDP won power in British Columbia, said Helmut Pastrick, chief economist of the B.C. Central Credit Union, “we are out of sync with the national growth cycle.”

Where Clark has been winning, however, is in political foot£ work. In part, he has benefited from disarray on the opposing

1 benches. The Liberal official opposition has failed to catch fire « under leader Gordon Campbell and, according to at least one g recent poll, is tied with the leaderless Reform Party of British

2 Columbia—which has two MLAs—in voter support. But g Clark’s posturing over salmon has also brought a wave of pop5 ular approval, said Julie Winram, chief researcher for Mark-

policy Trend Research Inc., which conducted the survey. “He plugged into the anti-American sentiment and, with a little bit of fed-bashing thrown in, his numbers just turned around,” she said.

With polls signalling public approval for the politics of brinksmanship, the relative calm on the West Coast may come to an end when Clark returns to action after his brief family getaway. In New Brunswick, he will have an opportunity to defend a discussion paper, released last week by the B.C. government’s special adviser on constitutional affairs, opposition MLA Gordon Wilson. Among other options, the study contemplates independence for British Columbia should Quebec separate, and rejects any sort of special status for that province.

But it is fish that will preoccupy Clark—and ensure that the B.C. premier continues to preoccupy Ottawa and neighboring U.S. states. Clark has left standing a threat to force the closure of a U.S. navy torpedo-testing facility near Nanaimo unless more progress is made towards a salmon settlement by the end of this month. Sources in the federal government say Ottawa is exploring legal steps, short of expropriating the site, to foil Clark’s intent. But whatever happens to the base, British Columbia’s prickly premier may have already reeled in his catch. “Right now,” declared Radosevic, “Glen Clark is very, very popular with fishers.”

CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver