Ottawa fashions a truce in the salmon war, but Victoria sees only an empty gesture

CHRIS WOOD August 4 1997


Ottawa fashions a truce in the salmon war, but Victoria sees only an empty gesture

CHRIS WOOD August 4 1997





The young day held an unmistakable air of anticipation. A fresh northwesterly breeze kicked up a light chop on the silt-grey water of Canoe Passage. The low green banks of islands glowed in the wind-washed morning light. At intervals of a few hundred metres all along the channel, fish boats lay dead in the water, engines idling, a long restless picket of gillnetters that extended out to where only white dots of sunlit hulls showed against the dark water of the Strait of Georgia. On 500 decks, ears were cocked to VHP radios.

At precisely 0800 hours, a neutral voice broke the radio silence, declaring: “The Area E gillnet fishery is open.” From New Westminster to Sand Heads, engines roared, pink floats fell to the water and bows turned across the current, as the boats drew curtains of nearly invisible nylon gillnet mesh, some as long as three football-fields, from bank to bank. Within seconds, the mouth of British Columbia’s Fraser River had become the world’s greatest salmon trap.

The fresh breeze and clockwork opening made a welcome antidote to the rancor and bluster that marked the rest of last week’s developments in Canada’s—or, more accurately, British Columbia’s—salmon war with the United States. Tensions remained high even after militant members of the B.C. fishing industry released an American ferry, the Malaspina, which they had held captive for three days in Prince Rupert. While the fishers returned to their nets, threats by some of them to escalate confrontations this week kept the salmon dispute at the top of Ottawa’s diplomatic agenda. In Washington, the Senate voted 81 to 19 for a resolution calling on President Bill Clinton to send the U.S. navy to

protect Alaskan ferries’ “right of innocent passage” | through Canadian waters. 5

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, returning from vaca-f tion, sent Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy to ¡ Washington to mend fences. Emerging from a day of | bruising encounters with U.S. officials, though, Axworthy conceded $ that he had won little more from the Americans than an agreement to 1 consider new ways to restart stalled discussions over the two countries’ " differing interpretations of the failed 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty.

In Victoria, pugnacious B.C. Premier Glen Clark made it clear he did not consider that good enough. Negotiations between Canada and the United States aimed at setting fishing targets have foundered for the past four fishing seasons, scuttled by disputes over technical data and even the meanings of key clauses in the treaty itself. Giving Axworthy’s deal no “reasonable possibility of being successful,” Clark applauded the “courageous resistance” of the Prince Rupert blockaders and even seemed to urge them on to further confrontations. ‘We cannot back down in the face of such minor progress,” said the B.C. premier.

Clark’s hard line reflected the frustration of British Columbia’s roughly 6,000 salmon fishers. Gillnetter Kim Olsen, an unofficial spokesman for fellow militants, delivered a blunt ultimatum to federal Fisheries Minister David Anderson, the British Columbian who is also political minister for the province. We basically told him that he has one week to come up with something for us,” Olsen said after a meeting with the minister. If Anderson failed to resolve the dispute by the deadline? “Then we don’t know what will happen,” warned Olsen. Some of his colleagues were readier to speculate about possible courses of action. “The fleet was talking about blocking U.S. cruise

Ottawa fashions a truce in the salmon war, but Victoria sees only an empty gesture

ships and freighters,” said John Stevens, a gillnetter from Ladner. | Prince Rupert fisherman Des Nobels boiled the situation down to even g more basic terms. Without some concessions from the U.S. side, said § Nobles, “we’re kicking American ass.”

But other Prince Rupert residents were already adding up the cost! of the fishers’ initial action. While 200 Canadian fish boats kept the \ Malaspina blockaded at her dock, Alaskan officials announced they 5 would break the lease that for 36 years has routed the state’s Marine Highway System ferry through the B.C. port. Then, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles announced that the state will sue the fishermen and the Canadian government for damages. Prince Rupert officials, already reeling from the loss of 700 jobs with an early-July pulp mill closure, estimated the loss of the ferry service, which attracted 70,000 passengers annually, would cost the town $12 million a year in tourism revenue. “The word is catastrophic,” lamented Steve Smith, manager of Prince Rupert’s Crest Hotel. “It’s about 30 to 35 per cent of our business.” In a related blow, a local fish-processing plant laid off 100 workers after Cana-

dian fishers prevented salmon caught in Alaskan waters from reaching the Prince Rupert plant.

And while the men and women seemed well satisfied with the success of their protest (‘We got our point across,” said Olsen), many in Prince Rupert—and the tourism industry throughout the province— concluded that it was they, not the Americans, whose butts were feeling the pain. Pat Corbett, president of the B.C. Council of Tourism Associations, wrote to both Chrétien and Clark, praising the Prime Minister for Ottawa’s “conciliatory approach” and warning the premier that salmon-war bluster could cost the $7-billion-a-year industry heavily. Anxiety over the impact of the ferry blockade found an echo at the local level in Prince Rupert. “I’m quite angry about it,” said John Wood, whose Parry Place Bed and Breakfast, just two blocks from the ferry terminal, stands to be badly hurt if the ferry service does not resume. “I don’t think you bully the Americans into doing something.”

In fact, the U.S. administration reacted with unusual restraint to the seizure in a foreign port of a U.S.-flagship, to say nothing of the taking

hostage of its 385 passengers. State department spokesman Nicholas Burns called the action “very unhelpful.” And he characterized the burning of a U.S. flag by a man on a Canadian boat (he turned out to be a U.S. citizen named Rod Taylor) as “a great insult to the American people.” But Burns expressed sympathy for the Canadians. “When people’s livelihoods are at stake, emotions get high,” said Burns, adding, “Canada is our greatest friend. Obviously, we are going to resolve this dispute peacefully.”

Axworthy clearly shared that objective when he flew to the U.S. capital at midweek. After meeting separately with officials from the state department and Alaska’s congressional caucus, Axworthy, looking exhausted, said he hoped to “lower the temperature” in the dispute. To that end, he said that Canada had given up trying to persuade the United States to submit the treaty dispute to binding arbitration. Instead, two “eminent persons”—retiring University of British Columbia president David Strangway and Seattle businessman William Ruckelshaus, a former U.S. cabinet official—will meet with the various interested parties in the salmon war and look for fresh ways to reopen negotiations. They will report by the end of this year directly to the President and the Prime Minister. At the same time, the two countries will establish what Axworthy called “an early warning communications system” to keep senior officials in touch on a daily basis and head off any future incidents like the one in Prince Rupert. Making the most of the slender agreement, Axworthy insisted: “This is now taken on by both the President and Prime Minister as a matter of high priority.” Clark promptly denounced the agreement. “The eminent persons will have no mandate to negotiate,” the B.C. premier said. “No power to recommend a resolution and no deadline for completing their work.” Clark, who had conferred earlier with Anderson and Defence Minister Arthur Eggleton, went on to say that “until and unless” those conditions were added to the eminent persons’ mandate, British Columbia would

stand by its threat to cancel a lease letting the U.S. navy test torpedoes at a submarine range in Canadian waters off Nanoose, on Vancouver Island’s east coast. Victoria gave notice to Ottawa in June that it would cancel the lease in late August. Clark, declaring that “we have got to stand up to American overfishing,” accused Ottawa of “appeasement” and added for good measure: “This may well be the first time—certainly in my memory—that the Canadian government doesn’t stand on the side of Canadians.” Clark, not invited to a Seattle meeting that Fisheries Minister Anderson is holding this week with the governors of Alaska and Washington state, cancelled a scheduled November conference in Vancouver with five U.S. state governors grouped with Alberta and British Columbia in the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.

The clear morning sun dancing on the waves of Canoe Passage combined with the mystery and miracle of the salmon run itself to put the strong language and political manoeuvring into perspective. Veteran gillnetter Edgar Birch expressed reluctant support for the Prince Rupert blockade. “They had to do something like that,” Birch said, keeping an eye on his net from the deck of his boat, the

BevMark, “to get the Americans’

attention.” But most of the men and the few women setting nets on the river had more immediate concerns. “Three bloody fish!” Smokey Wilson, aboard Bleu Angel, complained to a visitor.

For Wilson and others in the commercial B.C. fishery, the endeavor may be less arduous than it was—and less chancy, thanks to such devices as electronic fishfinders. But it is far from an exact science. Success depends on keeping the net out of the way of sunken-log snags and the barges and deep-sea freighters that also use the fishing ranges. What comes out of the net is sometimes what is sought—last week, sockeye—sometimes not. Less valuable pink salmon may wind up in the nets. Or it may be valuable but endangered sturgeon, which, mostly, are pulled from the mesh and released. The fabled annual West Coast salmon run, in fact, is not a single event with clear rules or distinct borders, beginnings and ends. It does not even involve a single kind of fish. Five major species range from the short-lived pinks, about 2.2 kg, to the giant chinook, prized by sports fishers, that can grow to 30 kg over a lifespan of seven years. They have one characteristic in common, apart from being distant relations of landlocked trout: as they approach the end of a life spent roaming the trackless Pacific, an overwhelming compulsion drives them home to the west coast of North America. Each summer, millions of them find their way past fishnets, predators and turbulent river currents to reach the high inland headwaters, where they will continue their kind and then die.

That Sisyphean annual miracle of rebirth earned the salmon a central place in the mythology of British Columbia’s First Nations, and it inspires contemporary artists and designers. The salmon’s prodigious numbers earned it a key role in the province’s economy. Salmon swim as deep in the British Columbia psyche as cod do in the Newfoundlander’s identity. And that colors the hostilities between the Canadian and American fisherfolk on the coast as well as the three-sided political dispute among Victoria, Ottawa and Washington.

Much besides disputes and interventions can go wrong in the fishery. The sockeye that eluded the nets on the lower Fraser last week faced a perilous passage made more difficult by unusually high water in the river. At Hell’s Gate, a particularly narrow defile in the Fraser Canyon north of Hope, the water boiled and coursed so violently that many fish failed to make it any farther. That created salmon jams in the eddies and backwaters downstream. “When you went up on the cliff and looked down, it was just black,” said Rod Peters, one of an extended family of Seabird band Stö-lo Indians camping last week a few miles south of Hell’s Gate.

Family matriarch Berthie Peters holds an aboriginal permit to use the traditional fishing spot to catch salmon. Since the beginning of July, the clan’s 12-m gillnets, strung out into the swirling current at the end of long cedar poles, had hauled in about 700 salmon—most destined for family larders, although a pilot federal program allows the family to sell some fish to commercial buyers.

Differing rules. Differing types of gear. Differing stocks,

species and runs. The sheer complexity of the subject does much to bedevil salmon negotiations. Canadian and U.S. analysts disagree over everything, from the numbers of fish in different stocks to which side’s negotiators most often walk out in a huff. Among fishers of the two nations, not even the names of all the fish are the same; Americans, for instance, call the chinook “king” salmon.

Disagreement is especially sharp over the terms of the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty. Canadian officials insist that the key to the treaty lies in its first principle. That clause compels both countries to prevent overfishing and to manage their fisheries so as to ensure that “each party receives benefits equivalent to the production of salmon originating in its waters.” Canada argues that Americans—mainly

Alaskans—take as much as $70 million a year worth of salmon originating in Canadian waters to which they are not entitled under that so-called equity provision.

Most U.S. analysts insist the treaty—the result of two decades of negotiations—doesn’t mean that at all. “I think the treaty was signed before it was ripe,” says Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trailers Association. “The language is ambiguous. We have two sides that interpret what they think they signed in two tremendously different ways.” In common with other Alaskans and the U.S. federal administration, Kelley favors a so-called abundance-based interpretation of the treaty, in which each side could take a fixed share of the harvest, with the number of fish varying according to the size of the salmon run. “As long as the Canadians want to beancount,” says Kelley, “and say, You have one of my fish so you owe me one,’ I don’t know if we’re going to get anywhere.”

Anderson says there is no chance of Canada forsaking its insistence on the equity principle. But the fisheries minister concedes that leaves him with few levers to swing Washington or Alaska to Ottawa’s point of view. “The greatest card we have is the moral high ground,” said Anderson. ‘We must appeal to the American national interest in showing moral leadership.”

That may strike many B.C. fishers as a frail rod indeed. But Anderson and his colleagues in the federal cabinet have made it plain that they have no appetite for Clark’s fish war. Even before Axworthy’s pilgrimage last week, Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Raymond Chrétien, carried that message to Alaska’s congressional caucus in a series of telephone calls.

Another message may also have been intended for Victoria. Confided one Canadian official: “The difficulty will be finding a way for Clark to back down, because he is going to have to.” But if the message had been heard, it was not evident by week’s end. Clark offered to rescind the notice on the lease—but only if Ottawa first refused to make it available to the United States until the Americans come to terms on the salmon treaty.

That does not seem especially likely. Nor does any early agreement on the substance of the issues that have pitted British Columbia against its American neighbors over salmon. Actions such as the blockade of the Malaspina, said Kelley, “make it tough to get in the mood to negotiate.”

Out on the water of Canoe Passage, gillnetter Birch was similarly gloomy, for different reasons. “Anderson’s a yes-man,” complained Birch. “I’ve got no optimism that he’ll solve our problem.” And with no change of attitude evident on either : side, going fishing on Canada’s West Coast seems likely to rei main far from relaxing for seasons to come.




Troubled waters

The lifestyles of the salmon contribute to conflict ashore

The complex migratory cycles of the Pacific salmon complicate the current disputes among the fisherfolk on the west coasts of Canada and the United States—and among their regional and national political leaders. British Columbians accuse Americans of overfishing stock native to B.C. waterways. Alaskans and Washington state fishermen tend to treat all salmon as fair game when at sea. Ecologists, some sport-fishing fans and fishing resort operators fret that the commercial industry, regardless of nationality, threatens the very survival of the salmon, whatever its bloodlines.

There are many differences among the salmon themselves. Far from a standardized mass, those from B.C. waters constitute five main species, each with hundreds of substocks—schools of fish that return from the ocean to a specific river system to spawn and die. Each subspecies follows a different timetable for a final pilgrimage back to its birthplace. From May to December, the sockeye and the chinook, the coho, chum and pink share the same sea-routes and river channels on the way to hundreds of home streams, from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to Washington state. What is often reported as a single event—the Fraser sockeye run, say—may in fact be a threemonth-long return of as many as six different stock groups.


The most valuable commercial species, the sockeye has a threeto five-year life cycle. On the Fraser River, the biggest sockeye producer, British Columbia’s 1997 commercial catch is expected to exceed 10 million fish. The potential total sockeye catch on the Nass and Skeena rivers: about two million.


The largest species of Pacific salmon, it has a twoto seven-year life cycle. Most B.C. chinook originate in major rivers, especially the Fraser. This year’s harvest from the west coast of Vancouver Island is currently restricted to 60,000 fish, and in north and central coast troll fisheries to 85,000.


Spawning in more than half of the 1,500 B.C. streams where records are available, most coho return to spawn at three years of age. For conservation reasons, commercial coho fishing has been banned this year in southern regions and closed or restricted in northern areas.


Chum spawn in more than 880 streams and live from three to four years. This season’s commercial chum catch is expected to number about three million, down from an annual average of 3.5 million in the 10 years to 1994.


The most abundant of the species in B.C. waters, pinks have a two-year lifespan. The expected 1997 catch is about eight million down steeply from recent average catches of more than 15 million.

Canadian officials estimate that Alaskans have taken roughly 400,000 Canadian sockeye this year, far beyond the old treaty quota of 120,000 annually, and the catch could reach one million by August.

Fisheries in Washington state depend heavily on Fraser River sockeye and pink salmon. Almost all the sockeye and about 75 per cent of the pink caught by Washington state fisheries come from Canada.

Canadian troll fisheries off the west coast of Vancouver Island catch chinook and coho salmon bound for Puget Sound and the Columbia River—up to 30 per cent of Canada’s total chinook and coho catch.



Official estimates of sockeye “returns”— fish that reach their spawning waters— point to varied 1997 numbers on major B.C. river systems.

Returns on the Fraser system are expected to exceed 18 million, second only toa record 24-millionplus in 1993.

On the Skeena, early estimates placed returns above the recent average of about 3.5 million. But aggressive Alaskan fishing is expected to reduce Nass River returns from an about-average 700,000 fish.