Court writes end to US-Canada offshore dispute

Man makes political boundaries. Fish (and oil) ignore them. Thus, the Solomonlike decision of the International Court of Justice settling the boundary between the United States and Canada in the Gulf of Maine/Georges Bank area may look better to Canadian than to American fishermen. And it may look better to US than to Canadian oil interests.

In fixing a new offshore boundary between the two nations on Friday, the court resolved a dispute which has simmered for 15 years. Both governments had agreed beforehand to abide by the decision of the International Court, which has no enforcement powers.

Although the political rift has been settled, a new issue facing the countries is managing a fishing stock that knows no bounds.

The Georges Bank is an extremely rich fishing area, important to both the Canadian and American fishing industries. There are also indications the region might hold significant oil and natural gas reserves.

Both governments expressed satisfaction with the decision, an apparent compromise between the claims of the two countries.

The United States, which claimed much of the 30,000 nautical-square-mile Gulf of Maine and all of Georges Bank, got about two-thirds of the gulf and three-fourths of the bank.

Canada had claimed approximately half of Georges Bank. The court gave it about one-fourth. Yet the section Canada got, the Northeast Peak, is a particularly rich fishing ground. The decision, said a government statement, ''insures the maintenance of Canadian fisheries.''

Sean Brady, official spokesman for Canada's Department of External Affairs, said: ''The feeling here is that we are satisfied with the results, but are certainly not gloating.''

Richard H. Schaeffer, regional director of the US National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester, Mass., says approximately half of the the haddock, a quarter of the cod, and a third of the redfish, sea scallops and yellowtale flounder netted by Americans are caught in this region.

''This is not to say that we will not find fish'' in other sections of Georges Bank, he says. But the Northeast Peak is a proven area, and Americans will have to venture farther afield to fill their nets.

Ken Beal, Mr. Schaeffer's assistant, predicts there will be enough fish for fishermen of both nations, provided they continue to manage the Georges Bank fishery ''as one stock.''

Canada and the US have long cooperated on such management and research issues as setting size limits for fish caught, regulating the size of mesh for nets, and population dynamics of the stock, Beal explains.

He says American fishermen have traditionally considered the Canadian fishermen their ''cousins,'' and he hopes policy matters between the two countries can be resolved in that spirit.

Kathleen Lang, spokeswoman for the US State Department says: ''The implications for management of the Atlantic fisheries are highly complex.'' She said the department hopes ''the implementation of the new boundary will take place in the atmosphere of cooperation that generally characterizes US-Canadian relations.''

Ms. Lang notes that not only is the fishery split by the boundary, but oil and gas exploration rights also are clearly defined.

But Alison Rieser, director of the Marine Law Institute at the University of Southern Maine, says that for now ''the fishing is much more important. The fishery is a proven, highly valuable resource.'' It is absolutely critical to such areas as southeastern Nova Scotia, where it is practically the only industry, she notes.

Studies indicate there may be significant amounts of oil and natural gas buried beneath the sea bed, but Ms. Rieser points out that ''oil is an unknown quantity'' in the area.

Fishing boats operating in Georges Bank will have a grace period, until Oct. 26, to complete their fishing runs and motor back into their newly defined territorial waters.

The dispute began in 1969, when the US protested a Canadian move to issue oil and gas exploration rights on Georges Bank. A special panel of five judges, including a Canadian and an American, considered the claims.

The decision was announced Friday in The Hague, Netherlands. Only the French judge dissented.

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