Yet Another Collapse In U.S.-Canada Fish Talks
ONCE again, U.S.-Canada salmon negotiations have broken down amid a climate of cross-border finger-pointing and threats. The impasse remains complicated and the solution elusive. All we know for sure is the price of failure - continued overfishing of Washington's troubled salmon runs.
Both sides should back off until after Canada's national election June 2, then return to the bargaining table with the so-called stakeholders - fishermen from both sides of the border who have made good progress learning to understand each other. Instead, British Columbia Premier Glen Clark has resorted to saber-rattling, renewing an old threat to impose fees on Washington fishing boats headed north.
The U.S.-Canada salmon treaty has not lived up to its promise to conserve regional salmon runs. This is not Canada's fault. While the Northwest built dams that obstruct salmon runs and degrade fish habitat, the Canadians opted to keep rivers free-flowing. As a result, B.C.'s fish runs are in better shape and rebuilding at a faster rate than Washington's.
Under the treaty, Canadians are entitled to intercept up to 1.5 million Northwest coho salmon migrating along the west coast of Vancouver Island. In return, U.S. fishermen catch equivalent numbers of B.C. fish returning to B.C. rivers. This quid pro quo works only if the runs are equally healthy. They are not.
Canada has reduced its catch of Northwest coho off Vancouver Island. If they are to reduce that harvest further, Canadians want something in return - reduced fishing on their runs. This makes sense. U.S. interceptions of B.C. fish have been roughly twice the number of Canadian interceptions. However, Northwest fishermen, including tribal fleets, believe they have a legal and historical right to B.C. fish.
So, while the Americans worry about conservation, the Canadians focus on equity - who gets how much. Both stances are reasonable, but they are mutually contradictory, the very essence of a stalemate.
Meanwhile, continued fishing nudges U.S. salmon runs closer to the brink of extinction. If Puget Sound and coastal coho are fished out or formally listed as endangered, the salmon treaty loses whatever is left of its meaning.
A series of stakeholder meetings earlier this year produced a rare glimpse of daylight. Three series of intensive talks forced fishermen from Washington, Alaska and B.C. to see things from the other's perspective. One group was close to an agreement on B.C.-Alaska conflicts when the talks ended abruptly.
To sort out salmon differences, Canadians must sheathe their sabers and remember that conserving salmon runs is the first priority. Equity is an empty concept if there are no fish to divvy up.
At the same time, American negotiators must be prepared to make real concessions. That will mean catching fewer B.C. fish, including the prized Fraser sockeye run. Persuading hometown fishermen and treaty tribes to back off won't be easy. But the alternative - continued gridlock and willy-nilly interceptions - is simply unacceptable.
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