Latest Fish Fight: 'Captain Canada' Takes on Alaska

FIRST he took on Spain's giant fleet for taking too many turbot ground fish in the Atlantic. Now "Captain Canada," or Brian Tobin, a youthful fisheries minister, is taking on a bigger fish: the multibillion-dollar US Pacific salmon industry

Mr. Tobin is threatening unspecified retaliation if Alaska's fishermen catch the 230,000 chinook salmon - 40 percent more than Canadian scientists say is prudent - as the fish swim down the Alaskan coast to Canadian waters.

Canada's aggressive bid to prevent overfishing the chinook returning to British Columbia rivers is sparking threats of a salmon war between the two neighbors.

Salmon fishing is a $330-million a year business in British Columbia and 10 times that size in Alaska. But pushing a revamping of salmon quotas for both countries and taking on Alaska's powerful 1,000-boat salmon fleet will be tough.

As in the fight with Spain, the young politician from Newfoundland is taking the moral high ground first by dropping Canada's own chinook quota by 50 percent so "the fish are not a casualty" in the dispute. And he is throwing down the gauntlet to Alaskan politicians.

Under the 1985 Pacific Salmon Treaty, stakeholders include Canada, Oregon, Washington State, and US and Canadian native groups. Tobin declared July 4 that talks to set new quotas and protect the chinook had failed - and that Alaska was the culprit. "It has become apparent that the US administration is a hostage to the narrow regional interest of the state of Alaska," he said in a statement.

Canada is unlikely to board and seize a US vessel as it did a Spanish trawler in February. For one thing, the Alaskans are fishing inside US territorial waters and simply scooping up the Canada-bound salmon as they swim through. The Spanish were barely outside Canadians waters and a long way from friendly soil.

Tobin's tough image

"He's not taking on the Spanish this time, and he's a lot more likely to get his behind kicked if he's not careful," says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political analyst. "He's carved out a tough image ... and he may want to keep it up," he says.

But even if Tobin must act with due care, Canadian fishermen may be willing to act on impulse even when the government doesn't officially approve. On July 9, Canadian fishing boats hinted at their ability to disrupt Alaskan commerce by blocking an Alaskan ferry from docking in Prince Rupert, B.C.

"Our first choice is to get back to the negotiating table," says Dennis Brown, vice president of the 6,000-member United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. "Alaskans are going to find out that commerce depends on cooperation and good neighborliness. We don't want this fight, but we will [fight] if we have to."

Canadians could make their displeasure felt by blocking the Trans-Alaska highway that runs through British Columbia and connects Alaska to the lower 48 states. Or it may charge a transit fee to US fishermen traveling through Canadian waters.

Last summer Tobin levied a $1,100 fee to get Washington's attention. It did. The fee was dropped after the White House promised to push US parties harder for a deal. This year's frustration should result in $11,000, Mr. Brown suggests.

Alaskans, for their part, simply scoff at charges they are endangering the salmon. Multimillion-dollar aquaculture investments have vastly increased the salmon runs in Alaskan waters over the past decade, while many Canadian runs have not. But Alaskans also catch about 6 million fish annually that are bound for Canadian waters - including chinook, Ottawa authorities say.

"Alaska is willing to make sacrifices to meet conservation needs," says Gov. Tony Knowles. "But we cannot accept arbitrary reductions intended to reallocate fish...."

The problem for Canada in this debate is that it is difficult to take the moral high ground when it comes to protecting fish, environmentalists and scientists say.

Salmon run upriver from June through early November. But last year 1.9 million sockeye expected to return to the Adams River - one of Canada's most famous salmon runs - never even made it to the starting gate at the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver. And last summer, another 1.3 million salmon failed to reach spawning beds.

All told, at least 3.2 million fewer fish than expected spawned in British Columbia. And a government-appointed panel reported earlier this year that most of the blame lay with overfishing by Canada's own commercial fleet. At one point, the report said, the entire Adams River run was in danger of being annihilated if fishing had continued another 12 hours.

Part of that was Tobin's fault. Last year his tough line with US fishermen was the reverse of this year's "risk-averse management" approach.

"We will fish in a manner that will seek to maximize the benefits to Canadians and where possible, and this in a commercial sense, to minimize the benefits to American fishermen," he said in June 1994. Environmentalists say, however, that not only last year but for several years Canada has attempted to balance out its loss to Alaskan fishermen by taking more salmon bound for the Pacific Northwest - even if that has meant deliberately taking some endangered species.

"We are riskily fishing these stocks," says Jim Fulton, director of the David Suzuki Foundation, a Vancouver environmental group critical of both Canadian and US salmon-fishing practices. Because sockeye salmon is bringing up to $5 a pound on the Tokyo commodity exchange, "what we've got here is a gold-rush mentality," he says.

A new US-Canada treaty is needed - one that does not include a veto for all participants - but which allows the US and Canada to deal directly, he and others say.

But that isn't all. A reduction is needed in the number of fishing vessels, environmentalists say.

But any agreement between the US and Canada seems remote as long as Alaska's two US senators and its governor repeatedly veto any deal. "The Alaskans are in a powerful position, and they're being bullies," says Bruce Hill, president of a British Columbian sports fishing group. "The rhetoric coming out of southeast Alaska just pushes a lot of the wrong buttons for Canadians. They're saying: 'Ha, ha, what are the Canadians going to do - nuke us?' They're in a position of power, and they're abusing it."

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