THE United States and Canada, two countries that reached common ground on land-based trade, are navigating a collision course at sea.
Canada announced on Thursday that it would impose stiff fees on US fishing boats passing through its West Coast waters. It says US officials have not been serious about negotiating a deal on how to divide up this year's salmon catch.
Both nations are struggling for control over a declining industry still worth hundreds of millions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of workers. In Canada alone, the industry is valued at $400 million (Canadian; US$291 million) and employs about 15,000 workers.
But West Coast fisheries have been in decline on both sides of the border, particularly in the US where hydroelectric dams and other river uses have contributed to a decline in salmon. The US portion of the salmon industry, worth about $1 billion in 1988 and employing 62,000, is at a fraction of that level now, analysts say.
Under the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty, Canada and the US set annual limits on how much fish each country's fishermen can harvest while in the other country's waters. The two fleets are supposed to take roughly equal amounts of fish.
The problem, Canadian officials say, is that the decline in US-spawned salmon has led to an imbalance in which US fleets catch about $60 million (Canadian; US$43 million) more of Canadian-spawned salmon. Americans caught about 9 million Canadian-spawned salmon last year, compared with a Canadian catch of less than 4 million US-spawned salmon, according to Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Despite this imbalance, the US fleet had proposed catching 2 million more Canadian salmon. Canadian officials say they have had enough of that imbalance. ``It is one thing to be invited into my home to enjoy supper with me,'' Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin told reporters at a news conference. ``It's quite another when I arrive home and find you at my table, picking my cupboards. What is happening in this case is the Americans are down in the freezer, and they're picking away at the last remnants.''
The license fee announced last week will be $1,500 (Canadian; US$1,091) each time a US boat enters Canadian waters. For many US boats working the coastal waters up to Alaska, that means a total of $3,000 to go fish and return home. ``This is the first in a series of steps we plan to undertake with a view to slowing down the US assault on a fragile Canadian resource,'' Tobin said.
US fishermen, however, contend that the ``assault'' is happening on both sides. ``We have to work out a plan that is conservation-driven and not profit-driven,'' says Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents small commercial fishermen from San Diego to Alaska. ``If we keep fighting over the last remaining fish, pretty soon there won't be ... any fishermen in either country.''
Once-abundant Columbia River salmon runs are at low levels due to the El Nino weather pattern, years of human-induced habitat loss, and a difficult spawning journey past eight dams. To help stocks recover, America's Pacific Fishery Management Council will allow virtually no fishing along the Oregon and Washington coasts this year for prized coho and chinook species.
But many of these fish migrate through Canadian waters, and many will be caught there this year. Similarly, many fish of Canadian origin are caught in US waters off the Alaska coast. Tony Floor, spokesman for the Washington Department of Fisheries, says the state's biggest worry is that one of Canada's steps to force a compromise will be to target endangered US runs, hindering recovery efforts.
``Fish do not see international boundaries,'' says Mr. Spain, who wants a treaty overhaul based on conservation and fairness to fishermen in both countries. The task is complex, however. A Canadian vessel in search of abundant British Columbian chum salmon may also catch endangered Snake River salmon along with them.