Turning the tide

JOHN DeMONT July 20 1998

Turning the tide

JOHN DeMONT July 20 1998

Turning the tide



David Anderson went fly-fishing last week. Under the circumstances, it seemed an act of monumental self-control. B.C. Premier Glen Clark had, after all, gone to Washington, where he suggested, most undiplomatically, that the federal fisheries minister is a traitor—and that the salmon deal his department had negotiated with Washington state was a sellout. All along the B.C. coastline, Canadian fishermen were railing about how Anderson’s “save-the-fish” approach to his job has translated into the death knell for their communities. Meanwhile, negotiations with Alaska to protect endangered stocks of coho salmon in northern waters were collapsing. But that did not prevent the man in the middle of the storm from heading for the Restigouche River in New Brunswick for two days. He did monitor the political mayhem by cell phone. But mostly he stood kidney deep in the stunningly beautiful river casting—unsuccessfully—for salmon. “Moving water gives you a sense of awe,” he exuded. ‘You look at that fish, realize everything it has gone through and say, ‘There’s one that has made it.’ ”

It was a dash of wistful romanticism from the lanky, bearded former environmental consultant. Anderson will never match the brash Clark quote for quote. But he will be judged on his politics, not his poetry. A week after Anderson negotiated the short-term salmon conservation deal with Washington state, talks with the Alaskan government—which strongly disagrees with Canadian scientific reports that the northern salmon are endangered—broke down over Ottawa’s insistence on strict conservation measures. But Anderson still left the undeniable impression that, while success on the international front was a mixed bag, his willingness to break with the department of fisheries and oceans’ past practice of stressing jobs over conservation is at least scoring points in British Columbia. And that alone is an accomplishment for a minister who entered the troublesome portfolio facing low expectations, and immediately began restructuring fisheries on the East and West coasts, throwing fishermen out of work and devastating coastal communities.

In this second straight summer of B.C.-Ottawa sound-bite warfare over fish, Anderson is hoping that his reasonableness will prevail over the bellicose Clark. The undeniable logic of his “fishfirst” policy seems to be catching on with environmentalists, newspaper editorialists and even non-experts, who increasingly support his argument that fishing any species to extinction is environmental genocide and economic idiocy. For now, at least, Anderson passes for political chic: a recent Angus Reid poll showed that the vast majority of British Columbians support his decision last month to effectively shut down the province’s fragile coho fishery because the fish are endangered. The July 3 deal with Washington—under which the state agreed to limit its catch of sockeye bound for the Fraser River to 25 per cent, and re-

Ottawa's 'fish-first' policies are catching on

strict its fishing period—may have left the Clark government and fishermen’s groups apoplectic. But it also swelled the ranks of Anderson converts among the broader population. “He is winning the war for popular opinion,” admits Vancouver radio talk-show host Rafe Mair, an Anderson critic who now evinces some grudging respect, “and I think justifiably.”

The failure to get the Alaskans onside puts some of that newfound sheen at risk. For one thing, Clark just keeps swinging harder. Last week, he told state department officials in Washington that his province will “aggressively” pursue its goal of closing a U.S. navy torpedo testing range off Vancouver Island to protest American overfishing. “People are pushed to the brink in British Columbia,” he told a news conference. “Canada has completely sold out British Columbia’s interests in Pacific salmon.”

Those are worrisome words to American and Canadian officials, who fear that talk like that—along with anger over Alaska’s refusal to limit coho fishing—could lead to a repeat of the demonstrations that occurred last August when protesting Canadian fishermen blockaded an American ferry for three days. Ottawa insiders, noting that Clark is way behind in the polls, say he is using the threat of closing the range as a transparent bid to distract attention from the province’s sagging resource-based economy—and curry favor with his primary political audience of unionized fishery and forestry workers. “Clark is acting dangerously and irresponsibly,” charged one of Anderson’s advisers.

If the talk shows and newspaper letter pages are any indication,

fewer and fewer ordinary British Columbians seem to be buying Clark’s message. Public opinion towards Clark ranges from lukewarm to hostile as far as the tough talk on salmon is concerned.

“Premier prattles on while the Americans and Ottawa make real progress on saving salmon stocks” was the Vancouver Sun’s headline on the Washington state agreement. Clark’s vulnerability is easily explained: critics say the provincial government has a dismal record in areas where it has jurisdiction to actually help preserve salmon stocks. Provincial cutbacks have already slashed millions of dollars from the budget for policing loggers whose forestry practices cause increased soil runoff into spawning rivers, with disastrous effects on salmon reproduction rates. And environmentalists allege that Victoria has obstructed every effort Ottawa makes towards reducing the West Coast salmon fleets, a key element of any lasting conservation effort.

All of which makes it hard for the province to legitimately criticize the federal government. Last month, Ottawa pledged $400 million to buy back fishing licences, train unemployed fishermen and restore fish habitat. That West Coast salmon recovery program,

along with the push for new conservation agreements with the Americans, stand as two of the cornerstones of Anderson’s approach. But the hardest decisions he has had to make on the job have been closing fisheries.

In that regard the minister—who on the day of his swearing in said his priorities would be “conservation, conservation, conservation”—has broken with the tradition established by so many of his predecessors. When department scientists discovered that stocks of northern cod off Newfoundland had fallen to dangerously low levels in the 1980s, they warned ministers to make drastic cuts in catch quotas—or risk wiping out the cod altogether. Yet Tom Siddon and Bernard Valcourt, who both held the post in Brian Mulroney’s government, were only willing to inch catch quotas back slightly. The tough decision was left to their fellow Tory, Newfoundlander John Crosbie, who, in 1992, finally shut the East Coast cod fishery altogether. ‘Too often in the past political pressure took priority over caution and scientific advice,” he contends.

Anderson says that will never happen on his watch. His environmentalist bent may be politically astute, but it is also rooted in his own background. An outdoorsman and angler, the former B.C. Liberal leader also helped prepare a major report on the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster while working as an environmental consultant. Since taking over the federal job 13 months ago, he has shut the Labrador commercial salmon fishery, resisted calls to fully reopen the East Coast northern cod fishery, and found himself demonized in Prince Edward Island after his department increased the

minimum size for landed lobsters—all in the name of conserving stocks.

But his toughest test is in his home province, where he is the Chrétien government’s chief political minister.

The spitting match between British Columbia and Ottawa has been nasty— and personal. Clark alleges that Anderson has sold B.C. fishermen out to the Americans. Anderson says the B.C. premier is a mouthpiece for the leaders of the provincial fishing organizations. Throughout, Anderson sticks to playing the plodding, earnest friend of the fish, avoiding the bait of Clark’s most outrageously hostile remarks. “Anderson has the courage to make the tough decisions,” stresses Patricia Gallagher, director of Simon Fraser University’s science and continuing studies department. “For a politician that is not an easy thing to do.”

Can it last? Breaking the stalemate with Alaska is critical. Canadian anger over alleged U.S. overfishing was the flash point for the blockade by Canadian fishermen of the American ferry in Prince Rupert—a confrontation Anderson does not want to see repeated. “Clark,” he says, “does not seem to understand that co-operation and negotiation are the only ways to deal with the United States and to preserve the salmon.” Subdued as they might sound, for Anderson those are fighting words.