Canada’s fisheries minister takes aim at Alaska’s fleet
THE WEST COAST WAR
Canada’s fisheries minister takes aim at Alaska’s fleet
This time there was no incriminating fishnet artfully draped in the background, nor any undersized Atlantic turbot hoisted aloft to demonstrate the perfidy of the enemy. Still,
Brian Tobin’s rhetoric last week had a familiar ring to it, as the feisty federal fisheries minister sat before a row of Canadian flags in Ottawa’s national press theatre and—verbally at least—drew a line in the waves in defence of the national interest. The waves, on this occasion, were in the Pacific Ocean. And the national interest: the migratory schools of salmon that swim through icy Alaskan waters before returning to spawn in rivers in British Columbia, where they are the mainstay of a $ 1-billion fishery. With the opening of the 1995 salmon season just two days away, Tobin said that Canada was walking away from talks with U.S. officials aimed at setting quotas for this year’s catch.
He put the blame squarely on “the narrow, regional self-interest of the state of Alaska.” Declared Tobin:
“Alaska scuttled an agreement.” Then he added, with heavy emphasis: “This situation is not acceptable to the government of Canada. Canada will respond. And all options are on the table.”
The exact form of retaliation, Tobin continued, would be spelled out this week, after he visits British Columbia to consult industry and provincial officials. Tobin was likely to hear little during his trip to the West Coast to encourage restraint. “We want Tobin, if he has to take action, to take action,” z asserted B.C. fisheries minister David Zirnhelt. §
Added Dennis Brown, a spokesman for the United Fisheries and Allied Workers Union (UFAW), which | represents 6,000 B.C. fisheries employees: “We g have to get tougher than we have. We either stand 1 up for ourselves as a country, or we lose it all.” Still, it was equally plain that, in the United States, Tobin was courting a fight with an adversary far different from the rusting fleets of Spanish and Portuguese trawlers which featured in his high-profile, and much lauded, confrontation last March over the Grand Banks turbot. This time, neither Canada’s case nor its options are nearly so clear.
It is a case that hangs on the biology of salmon, the geography of the B.C. coast and a treaty that Canada and the United States signed in 1985. Like their Atlantic counterparts, Pacific salmon are bom in inland rivers and migrate to the sea. They spend years there growing fat and valuable before returning to the rivers of their birth to lay and fertilize
the eggs of a new generation of fish, after which the adults die. It is during that highly predictable return trip that salmon are caught in their millions by fishers from Alaska, British Columbia and the lower U.S. states of Washington and Oregon. It is geography, however, which gives the Alaskans a critical advantage over their rivals: most salmon returning to spawn in Canadian rivers first strike the continental coast far to the north of their eventual destination, in the area of the Alaska panhandle. As they swim south, the salmon run a gauntlet of Alaskan fishing nets long before they encounter any British Columbians.
That fact is recognized in the 1985 Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Treaty, which includes a provision intended to guarantee catches for each country “equivalent to the production of salmon originating in its waters.” The trouble, according to Canadian experts, is that the Alaskans have taken advantage of their favorable geography to net catches that consistently exceed their fair share under the so-called “equity principle” of the treaty. The excess, Canada maintains, amounts to as many as 4.5 million fish a year, worth nearly $70 million. “In terms of the equity principle, we are being cheated,” says Vancouver-based fisheries economist Parzival Copes. B.C. fishermen, whose grievances against the Alaskans long predate the 1985 pact, agree. Indeed, Edgar Birch, a veteran fisherman based in Delta, 20 km south of Vancouver, contends: “It has only gotten worse since we signed the treaty.” The breaking point for Canada came, Tobin said last week, when Alaska would not agree to reduce its catch of chinook salmon below 230,000 fish. Although by far the least plentiful of five major salmon species, the chinook are nonetheless significant. At up to 60 lb. each, chinook are the largest salmon in the sea. That has made them the most highly prized target of sport fishermen willing to spend hundreds of dollars on guides and equipment in order to hook one of the silver giants. The chinook are also the most vulnerable of the Pacific salmon, with some estimates placing the stocks at barely 10 per cent of 1960 levels. Observes University of British Columbia fisheries biologist Peter Pearse: “It is worth going to bat for.”
Tobin claimed to be doing just that. Declaring that “the needs of the fish are foremost,” Tobin said that Canada would unilaterally cut its take of chinook by hah in
1995. Those cuts, he added, will be enforced by beefed-up air and surface patrols of Canadian fleets.
But last week, various Alaskans challenged the Canadian view on almost every point. “I want to emphasize that Canada has withdrawn from the negotiations, not Alaska,” said Kevin Duffy, the state’s commissioner on a panel established under the 1985 treaty to monitor northern salmon stocks. Duffy added that Alaska considers Canada’s interpretation of the treaty’s equity provision to be flawed and “unworkable.” Alaska Governor Tony Knowles, addressing a news conference in Anchorage two days after Tobin’s, was dismissive of the fisheries minister’s heated rhetoric. “You always want to take political comments with a grain of salt,” he said. In Washington, meanwhile, Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, Ted Stevens, issued a thinly veiled warning of his own against precipitate Canadian action: “Bad neighbors,” he declared, “eventually pay the price of their own threat.”
In fact, it was far from clear that Tobin would be able to match deeds to his tough words. Despite his promise of a “strategic and intelligent” response, the minister’s options are limited. Some activists, including the UFAW’s Brown, called on Canada to take stem action against Alaska, perhaps by restricting land access to the state via the Alaska Highway, which passes through British Columbia and the Yukon. But many more fisheries workers were clearly pessimistic about what any such measures might achieve. Said one engineer on a Delta-based seiner preparing to leave port last week: ‘What are we going to do, go to war against the Americans? Not.”
One possibility is an expanded version of the $1,500 toll that Canada briefly imposed last year on U.S. fishing boats travelling through B.C. waters on their way from Washington state and Oregon to participate in the Alaskan fishery. The 1994 fee achieved its immediate goal of bringing U.S. negotiators back to the table to hammer out a one-year catch agreement. A new toll might be extended to cover the considerable freighter and barge traffic that also travels through Canadian waters between ports in Alaska and the lower states.
Such a move, however, would jeopardize what appeared last week to be Tobin’s strategy of attempting to isolate Alaska from its southern U.S. counterparts. Tobin noted that negotiators from the states of Washington and Oregon, as well as representatives of the U.S. administration, had been within reach of an agreement with Canada until talks broke off on June 30. “The Alaskans,” he said, “have been saying to their fellow citizens in Washington and Oregon, Tough luck, we’re going to feed the frenzy of greed—you’re on your own.’ I find that an appalling rejection of one citizen of the United States by another.” But Tobin’s efforts to isolate Alaska face a stiff challenge in the United States capital, where the state’s Republican congressional delegation is wellplaced to counter any exasperation the Clinton administration may feel at Alaska for provoking Canada to unilateral action. The salmon dispute has erupted at a time when the White House is eager to court the Republican-controlled Congress—and Alaska’s Stevens chairs the Senate subcommittee on oceans and fisheries. The state’s sole Representative, Don Young, sits on the corresponding House subcommittee and is the chairman of its more powerful parent, the House committee on resources.
Still, British Columbia’s estimated 25,000 active fisheries workers have little choice but to look to Tobin for leadership. And not all were pessimistic about the canny Newfoundlander’s chances of staring down the Americans as he did the Spaniards. “He’s the best fisheries minister we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Birch. “He knows what he has to do.” Reeling in victory in the fight over the mighty chinook, however, would plainly take more muscle, as well as skill, than doing the same over the tiny turbot. □
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