Fish Wars Have Created a Real Stink Between the U.S. and Canada


Bob Thorstenson wryly calls it “the 56-hour fish war.”

When the season opened on U.S. pink salmon in southeast Alaska earlier this month, about 100 U.S. fishermen in boats along Noyes Island had precisely 56 hours to fish their faces off. That was the time allowed by U.S. regulators after a breakdown in talks for renewal of the 1985 U.S.-Canada salmon treaty, which was designed to fairly divide fishing rights while also conserving species.

But what about those Canadian sockeye that accidentally got scooped up in their nets? Well, fish happens. As of Monday, when the first phase of the Noyes Island pink season closed, the Canadians say $50 million to $60 million worth of Canadian fish happened into American nets--and the 1997 salmon war was well underway.

“When I began fishing in 1977, our month of July entailed approximately 16 days of fishing, with 287 hours of actual fishing. This year, we had only 56 hours in the whole month of July,” said Thorstenson, a Seattle-based purse seiner who is part of the southeast Alaskan fleet. “While the Canadians might call this a fish war, we would call it incredible restraint.”

In Prince Rupert, British Columbia, fishermen’s union leader John Radisovic, has another name for it. “I liken it to coming home and finding a burglar in your house taking your TV,” he said.

The long-running dispute between U.S. and Canadian fishermen probably wouldn’t matter much to anyone else if it hadn’t led to Canadian fishing boats retaliating by surrounding a U.S. ferryboat in Prince Rupert last week.


After a three-day standoff, the ferry was allowed to go. But now there are threats of even more public actions if the two newly appointed envoys--former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Ruckelshaus on the American side and retiring University of British Columbia President David Strangway for the Canadians--can’t find a way out of the stalemate.

The problem is that, unlike millions of other faceless fish that cruise the Pacific Ocean, salmon are citizens. After spending four or five years at sea, they return to spawn in the streams and lakes of their youth. Along the way, Canadian fish swim through American waters. To a lesser degree, U.S. salmon shimmy through Canada.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty was supposed to ensure equity on both sides for salmon caught within 200 miles of the coast. The treaty worked well during the first few years, when built-in limits were established and followed, but broke down when new annual catch limits came up for negotiation.

During this last month’s pink harvest--one of several salmon mini-seasons under dispute--Alaskans probably netted 315,000 Canadian sockeye out of 2.35 million fish caught. That’s a threefold increase over the average 120,000 Canadian-bound sockeye caught by U.S. fishermen over the past three years--enough to spawn Canadian claims of a fish war.

Canadians say the “incidental” catch of their sockeye along with the relatively cheap and plentiful Alaskan pink isn’t an accident at all, not when a Canadian sockeye sells for $10 to $15 apiece. “When a sockeye is six times more valuable than the pink, you’d have to believe the sun comes up in the west to believe they’re not targeting those fish for their nets,” Canadian Fisheries Minister David Anderson said in an interview.

U.S. officials admit they’re catching more Canadian sockeye than usual but say it’s because they are catching more pinks.

“Fishing has increased because pink salmon abundance has increased. High catch levels in no way reflect a redirection of our fisheries to target Canadian stocks,” said David Benton, Pacific Salmon Commissioner for Alaska.

Thorstenson said the Canadians should remember that Americans are voluntarily taking a lot fewer fish than they would have in the days before the treaty. “Had we fished our normal 187 or even 100 hours, we would have harvested several million Canadian sockeye. Now, that’s what I would have called a fish war.”

Part of the reason there are more fish being harvested in less time is, at least for Canadian sockeye, there are more fish. Stocks on Canada’s rivers have doubled since the signing of the treaty. The U.S. sees that as good reason to catch more fish. Canadians, for their part, say they should be reaping the rewards for taking good care of fish habitat.

“We didn’t put power dams on our rivers,” says Radisovic. “The Americans chose to put dams from stem to stern, and now they’re looking toward us and saying, ‘Well, we dammed up our rivers, but now we’d like your fish.”

The Canadian government has tried to throttle back the enraged fishermen in British Columbia, who are being egged on by provincial Premier Glen Clark. Clark, battling scandal and plunging popularity at home, has led the U.S.-bashing charge, canceling a joint U.S.-Canada economic conference and threatening to hold up permission for U.S. submarines to operate off the Canada coast.

The federal government in Ottawa, absent any real leverage against a neighbor on which it depends for 80% of its trade, appears to be seeking a moral high ground on fish that it can stick to.

Anderson is pledging no retaliatory fishing. Limits will be set based on sending adequate numbers of salmon home to spawn, and that will likely mean forcing Canadians who catch U.S.-bound coho to bucket them out of their nets.

“These are really things the fishing fleet is unhappy about doing. You can well imagine the pressure I’m under,” Anderson said. “But if a stock disappears on my watch as minister of fisheries, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Canada or the U.S. When I reach St. Peter, himself a fisherman, at the pearly gates, it’s not going to matter. He’s going to say, ‘You let a stock die.’ ”