BOSTON — TROUBLE is breaking out in the Gulf of Maine between US scallop fishermen and the Canadian government. The Canadians say the Americans are fishing on their side of the Hague Line - the maritime boundary that separates the gulf into US and Canadian fishing grounds. They also say it's getting worse, and they want it to stop.
``There has been a dramatic increase in incursions in the last two weeks,'' says Carl Goodwin of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. ``Never before have I seen this type of flagrancy.''
Canada showed it meant business last week. A Canadian Navy destroyer, HMCS Saguenay, fired warning shots while pursuing the US scalloper Concordia, which the Canadians say was fishing in their waters. The two vessels collided several times; both sides claim the other was attempting to ram them. The captain of the Concordia, which sails from New Bedford, Mass., denies he has crossed the Hague Line.
American officials admit there is a problem. Kenneth Crossman of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) enforcement unit at Gloucester, Mass., says that since Dec. 2 there have been six instances in which the Canadian authorities have charged US vessels were scalloping illegally in the Canadian zone. This compares with six instances for the whole rest of 1989, with two in all of 1988, and one in 1987.
It is no coincidence that the violations are occurring now, observers on both sides say. In early November, all Canadian federal civilian seamen, including those crewing DFO patrol boats, went on strike. And the Canadian scallop fleet is now in port, having caught its legal quota for the year.
Americans are tempted by history and economics to cross the line, which divides the rich Georges Bank fishing grounds. American and Canadian fishermen have cast their nets there for centuries. Until the 1970s, they were considered international waters.
At that time, nations began to extend their ``exclusive economic zones'' - for fishing, oil drilling, and mining - to 200 miles offshore. In many areas, such as the Gulf of Maine, national claims overlapped.
The US and Canada were unable to agree on where the boundary in the Gulf should be drawn. A treaty was negotiated in 1979, but the US Senate refused to ratify it on the grounds that it favored Canadian fishermen.
So the two countries agreed to take the matter to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 1984, the court, using a complicated formula, drew the Hague Line, which has since served as the boundary between the two countries' zones.
The US got about five-sixths of the territory. But most of the fish are located on the Canadian side. Americans suddenly found themselves excluded from traditional fishing grounds. ``Canadian fishermen feel they got the better deal with respect to the fisheries resources,'' Goodwin admits.
Americans scallopers are under a lot of economic pressure. ``You have guys out there with million-dollar boats and major mortgage payments,'' says Petty Officer 3rd Class Ellen Marie Harrington of the US Coast Guard station in Boston.
The New Bedford scallop fleet is recovering from a serious downturn in the early 1970s, says Paul Swain of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's New Bedford office. The annual catch, after falling from 20 million pounds in 1960 to only 3 million pounds in 1973, is up again with an anticipated 18 million pounds for 1989, Mr. Swain says. But now there are more boats in the business: 110 compared with 60 to 70 in 1960.
Swain says that biologists believe the American scallop fishery is being overexploited. ``The fishermen have to make more of an effort now'' to catch the same number of scallops, he says. American scallopers can catch as much as they wish, as long as the average size of the mollusks is above a certain level. By contrast, the Canadians have a strict management program, with annual quotas and fewer fishing vessels.
If Canadian authorities provide the NMFS with video or photo evidence and expert testimony about illegal fishing by Americans, the US can prosecute the fishermen under US law. The Lacey Act provides civil and criminal penalties for Americans who transport illegally caught or trapped wildlife across international boundaries. The maximum fine is $20,000, Crossman says.
Canadian law is much tougher. The Canadian Coast Fisheries Protection Act provides for fines up to $750,000 (Canadian) and possible confiscation of the catch and the vessel, Goodwin says.
The tough Canadian penalties provide an incentive for American vessels to cut and run when approached by Canadian patrols, officials on both sides say. This could lead to more incidents like the Saguenay-Concordia chase or the disabling of a US vessel by Canadian fire.
``The situation is of great concern to both the Canadians and the US,'' says Petty Officer Harrington. ``A number of working groups are getting together to talk about how we are going to handle pursuit and the use of force.''
``We've shown remarkable constraint,'' Goodwin says. The patience of Canadian fishermen is getting thin, and rightfully so. Neighbors shouldn't be operating this way.''
Scallops aren't the only creatures causing rough seas in US-Canadian relations. Last week, President Bush signed a new law banning the import of lobsters measuring less than 3-1/4 inches across the back. New England lobstermen had sought the law, claiming they could not compete with imports of Canadian lobsters smaller than the Americans are allowed to catch.
Canadian officials responded angrily, charging the US with violating the bilateral free-trade agreement. Canada's international trade minister, John Crosbie, said he would take the matter to an arbitration panel.