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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Fish don't seem to care about borders, but some people do when stocks are low. The United States and Canada have been fighting over quota claims to the sockeye, Chinook and coho salmon for nearly five decades. Keith Seinfeld reports from KPLU in Seattle about the latest breakdown in negotiations.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Fish could care less about political boarders, but the people who catch them do, especially when the stocks are low. So, in the Pacific Northwest, the United States and Canada have been fighting over quota claims to the sockeye, chinook, and coho salmon since the 1950s. This year's spat is more vehement than ever. Last month, talks broke down over the run of sockeye that breeds in British Columbia's Fraser River. The sockeye season is opening with lots of fish at stake, but little hope for an agreement between the neighboring countries. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Keith Seinfeld reports.

SEINFELD: Fishermen in British Columbia are preparing to catch as many sockeye salmon as they can, as fast as they can, before US fishermen can get to them. As many as 18 million of the salmon are heading around Vancouver Island toward the mouth of the Fraser River. US fishermen are at a disadvantage, because this year, the fish are mostly in Canadian waters. Larry Rutter of the US National Marine Fisheries Service says a strategy like this puts the fish at risk. Circumstances were similar in 1994.

RUTTER: They had a desire at that time, also, to prevent the US from catching sockeye, and in fact, shot themselves in the foot somewhat.

SEINFELD: Mr. Rutter says Canadians over-fished one part of the Fraser run to the brink of extinction. His Canadian counterpart in the negotiations, Bud Graham of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, says there will be no mistakes this year, because they're better prepared to count the fish. Both sides say they'll stop in time to conserve 4 or 5 million fish for spawning. At the core of the dispute are two different ideas of what is equitable. The Canadians want to treat each fish as if it had a nationality. Any fish born in a Canadian river, and heading back there, they say, belongs to Canadian fishermen. Mr. Graham says the Canadians have offered the US a fixed number of fish every year, based on historical precedent, but he says all surpluses should go to Canada, to reward its environmental stewardship.

GRAHAM: In the Fraser River system, which does not have any main- stem dams, we've foregone other economic benefits to ensure that we have long-term salmon production. We have done a good job at protecting our sockeyes and pink stocks to the Fraser River, and should be the major beneficiary.

SEINFELD: In this view, any time US fishermen catch Canadian sockeye, the Canadians should be entitled to an equal number of US-bound coho salmon. US biologists call this an overly simplistic bean-counter approach. Mr. Rutter says the Canadian approach doesn't take into account the ebb and flow of salmon populations over time.

RUTTER: It makes the management of the fisheries very problematic, and in some cases it makes it unwieldy. And so, we think taken to that kind of extreme that Canada would exercise in vimplementing the equity principle, the fisheries would be badly disrupted.

SEINFELD: He says better to give each nation a percentage of each run, rather than a fixed number of fish. The US, for example, wants 20% of the Fraser sockeye. In years with big runs, they'd get more fish, and when the runs are small, they'd get less. But both sides claim they gave their best possible offers during the failed negotiations, so the blame game continues, and there's very little chance talks will resume at all this year. In May, Canadians detained 4 US fishing boats, and cancelled the US Navy contract for a torpedo range on Vancouver Island. Canada says it will not harass any more US boats, but officials won't make any promises about next year. The US says both sides are running out of fresh ideas. Meanwhile, fishermen on both sides of the border are preparing their nets, and as one charter boat captain says, everyone's first concern is conserving the stocks, as long as someone else does it. For Living on Earth, I'm Keith Seinfeld, in Seattle.



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