On the first visit to Canada in a decade by a U.S. secretary of State, Madeleine Albright on Tuesday announced new steps to resolve one of the few bitter disputes dividing the two neighbors--a fight over lucrative fishing rights for the Pacific salmon.
Speaking at a news conference after spending much of the day with Lloyd Axworthy, her Canadian counterpart, Albright said that newly appointed Canadian and U.S. negotiators will meet March 30 for the first round of negotiations aimed at finding an equitable way of dividing the salmon catch, worth between $400 million and $700 million annually.
"We look forward to a resolution of this issue through negotiation," she said.
Her comments came on the final day of a six-day trip that also took her to Ukraine and five West European countries.
Also Tuesday, Albright named veteran trouble-shooter Roberts Owen to head an American team of negotiators on the salmon issue that will include representatives of the governors of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, plus local Indian tribes.
Owen worked on the 1995 negotiations that led to the Dayton, Ohio, peace accords for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he served for a limited time as presiding arbitrator in the dispute over control of the ethnically divided Bosnian town of Brcko.
Axworthy appointed Donald McRae, an international trade lawyer and Ottawa University professor, to head the Canadian delegation.
The Canadians accuse Americans of taking more than half a million salmon as the fish swim through Alaskan waters on the way south to spawning grounds in Canada. The Americans say the Canadians have taken more than their share of salmon off British Columbia as the fish head for American spawning waters.
Canadian and U.S. officials say a settlement is urgent, as much on environmental grounds as for economic reasons. The absence of any accord by the start of the fishing season at the end of June could trigger a free-for-all that would devastate existing stocks.
"To conserve salmon . . . Canada and the United States must agree on interim fishing arrangements before the start of the 1998 fishing season," said David Anderson, Canada's minister of fisheries and oceans.
The fight over rights to Pacific salmon erupted in July into a rare international incident involving the two countries when angry Canadian fishermen, charging that American boats were taking their fish, encircled an American-owned ferry with their boats, prevented it from leaving the British Columbia port of Prince Rupert and effectively held it hostage for three days.
The decision on government-to-government negotiations follows the recommendations of a U.S.-Canadian report issued in January that called for federal, state and provincial governments, rather than the fishermen themselves, to seek a solution to the issue.
On other matters:
* Albright ventured briefly into Canada's emotional debate over Quebec separatism, reaffirming the U.S. preference for "a strong and united Canada." She did it with a difference. She made her comments in French. By speaking in French, she ensured that the message would be shown verbatim on Quebec television. She also crossed into the Quebec city of Hull to deliver her comments.
* The two countries agreed to establish binational boards for more effective environmental management of watersheds that span the U.S.-Canadian border.