It's bigger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. It lies out in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Gulf of Maine. And nobody knows who owns it.
It's a 12,000-square-nautical-mile tract of saltwater within the territorial limits of both Canada and the United States and claimed by each. Since 1977, when the two countries extended their offshore jurisdictions to 200 miles, it has been in hot dispute.
And it is just the tip of a whole shoal of East Coast problems between the neighboring nations revolving around the multimillion-dollar fishing industry.
The area in question includes Georges Bank, one of the richest fisheries in the world and quickly becoming a focal point for offshore oil and gas exploration.
The US claims most of Georges Bank. But the 1977 "strict equidistance line" plotted by cartographers trying to find a fair boundary off the wrinkled Atlantic coastline gives about one-third of Georges Bank to the Canadians. A later Canadian claim moved the equidistance line still further southwest based, says one US State Department official privately, on the premise that "Cape Cod doesn't exist" and that the continental US stops at the Cape Cod canal.
This particular dispute may be on its way toward settlement. US and Canadian officials expect a decision shortly by the Canadian Cabinet on a treaty (already ratified by the US Senate) that will hand the matter to the International Court of Justice at the Hague for arbitration. The matter could then be settled within two years.
But the boundary dispute is only one of many crosscurrents troubling the fisheries. After all, much is at stake. Canada's Atlantic Coast fishermen landed 327 million. Even the plan to seek arbitration has not come easily. Canadians are still upset by the failure of the US Senate to ratify the more comprehensive East Coast Fisheries Agreement.
That treaty, hammered out in patient negotiations under the Carter administration and signed in 1979, languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee largely because of objections voiced by New England fishermen and by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island.
Finally, on the eve of his visit to Ottawa last March, President Reagan "delinked" the two parts of the treaty. While supporting the proposal to seek a boundary settlement, he withdrew from Senate consideration the agreement on fisheries management.
Why the collapse of the much-studied treaty? Observers on both sides of the border note that the disagreement stems not simply from divergent policies but from deep-rooted differences in the socio-economic philosophies of the two countries.
"On the East Coast, we have two philosophies in parallel, and I find it hard to see how the bridge can be built," says associate director Michael Hunter of the International Fisheries Relations Branch of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Interviewed by the Monitor in his Ottawa office, he describes the current situation as "unbalanced." The Canadians, he says, are carefully regulating their industry to preseve its long-term viability. But New Englanders are pursuing what he calls a "peak and valley theory," in which fishermen make fortunes in good years and "go bust during the valleys."
Meanwhile, the management of fish stocks has fallen between the cracks. As an example, Mr. Hunter cites scallos one of the richest resources of Georges Bank, worth $75 million to the Canadians last year. Canada holds its scallop-fishing fleet to 77 vessels, and has imposed limits on trip length, maximum catch, and meat size. New England fishermen, under no such restrictions, fish freely for scallops much to the dismay of their Canadian counterparts.
South of the border, the executive director of the New England Fisheries Management Council agrees that the two nations are pursuing divergent philosophies. Noting that the issue is one of "free enterprise vs. government control," Douglas Marshall says that the Canadians "manage fish for social purposes as much as anything else." He adds that they subsidize fishermen at levels "way out of proportion to the value of the fisheries" in order to avoid the political consequences of unemployment in a volatile industry.
One form of subsidy ensures lower fuel prices in Canada, which in the last three years have become the fisherman's major cost. Canadian fishermen, Mr. Marshall claims, receive all sorts of other government benefits while in the US, :It's every man for himself."
But the old Yankee independence may be changing. Mr. Marshall notes that his council is about to present a scallop plan which has been 30 months in the making. The plans will "set out some rules" governing the size and kind of fishing gear, minimum size limits, and restrictions during spawning seasons. The council also is developing similar plans for groundfish and lobster.
That may not be enough to satisfy the Canadians, however. One of the major issues concerns "transboundary" stock fish that move from one country to the other.
Without coordinated regulations, the two countries set different size limits so that, for example, a US boat drifting across the Canadian border with a hold full of small fish caught in US waters could find itself in jeopardy from Canadian inspectors accustomed to larger minimum sizes.
Compounding such differences in policy are divergences in the regulatory structures themselves. To the Canadians, one problem is the presence of the New England Fisheries Management Council itself. In the US, the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act of 1976 established eight regional councils (of which Mr. Marshall's is one) to oversee fishing rights between 3 and 200 miles offshore. Regulation is decentralized: Washington, in marked contrast to Ottawa, exercises no effective control over its fishermen.
The result, say Canadians, is that New England can make decisions of great consequence based on regional concerns alone. Unlike the federal government, they are under no pressure to take into account the impact of their regulations on the larger issues of international relations between the two nations. And Canadians, seeking to deal on a government-to-government basis, instead have to deal with eight different (and sometimes conflicting) groups.
But New Englanders have their gripes as well. Still muddying the waters are persistent allegations of "dumping" by the Canadians. Defending his countrymen, Mr. Hunter cites several investigations over the past four years by the US Treasury Department -all of which exonerated the Canadians of charges that they used government subsidies to sell fish to the US at unfairly low prices and used countervailing duty regulations to keep US fish out of Canada.
But Mr. Marshall insists that the problem remains. He says that large amounts of scallops and lobster (sometimes caught in what his fisherman think of as US waters) are sent south. Because of government subsidies (and an exchange rate that benefits Canadian exporters), he says Canadian fishermen export 90 percent of their scallop catch to the US, where they can sell it at 5 to 10 cents per pound below US prices.
How serious are these issues in the increasingly uncomfortable relations between the two nations? Canadian officials see it as a greater problem than their US counterparts -although both agree that the problem yields in priority to bilateral debates about acid rain and Canada's new National Energy Policy.
But the failure to ratify the fisheries treaty may have some far-reaching implications. Former US ambassador to Canada Kenneth Curtis noted that it has "cast a cloud over our word in negotiations -so it will be harder to negotiate in the future."
But negotiations -or, as officials call it, "a dialogue" -continues between the two countries. Without a firmer commitment to a mangement treaty, however, Canada'a Hunter takes a somewhat gloomy view of their prospects, noting that "I think I'd be misleading if I were optomistic."