A Fish Story

Seriously, no exaggeration: we’re genuinely getting better at fishery negotiations.

Seriously, no exaggeration: we’re genuinely getting better at fishery negotiations.

The Queen of England and the Pope couldn’t sit down and work this thing out.” Those were Bob Wright’s parting words when he quit the Pacific Salmon Commission about a decade after he signed up to help Canada negotiate a new salmon treaty with the U.S. in 1985. Wright, the 78-year-old president and CEO of the Oak Bay Marine Group, is happy to gripe a bit over the phone from his company’s Bahamas resort about his old diplomacy days, when he’d be called out for three-day conferences in Seattle, Juneau or Vancouver every couple of months to fight over fish.

“There’d be a lot of rhetoric going on, and we would end meetings exactly where we started,” he recalls. “It was stalemate after stalemate.”

Those were the days when B.C. fishers blockaded Alaskan ferries in retaliation for Alaskans taking “their” salmon and then-premier Glen Clark called the federal government “treasonous” for not backing his hard-line tactics. The salmon dispute of the ’90s was one of the nastiest diplomatic squabbles B.C. has had with its neighbours in living memory.

But after a new salmon treaty was signed with barely a whimper last December, it’s fair to say those days are behind us.

The agreement states that Alaska fishers will reduce their chinook catch by 15 per cent, B.C. fishers will reduce their chinook catch by 30 per cent and the U.S. will pay US$30 million to compensate Canadians for their reductions. Although commercial fishers around Ucluelet are fuming over the deal, this was a cordial garden stroll compared to the pitched battles of 10 years ago, proof of a major diplomatic shift when it comes to fishing.

That’s no small feat, seeing as all the elements that previously made salmon talks so futile are still with us. According to Michael Healey, professor emeritus at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC, salmon sharing is based on the principle that each region should harvest the fish that spawn in its own rivers. But salmon, not caring about international boundaries, each year swim into foreign waters and get caught by foreign nets. And it’s not easy for an Alaska fisher to know that’s a B.C.-bred Skeena sockeye he’s pulling over the gunwales, especially when it’s mixed in with the Alaskan fish he’s supposed to be catching. So each fishery claims it’s being robbed, each professes innocence and each lobbies its politicians ferociously to protect local industry.

Because most West Coast salmon travel southward when returning to their spawning grounds, Alaska intercepts fish bound for B.C. and B.C. intercepts fish bound for Washington, Oregon and California. In the thick of the salmon wars, Wright recalls, B.C.’s fleets tried to plunder as many U.S.-bound fish as possible in an effort to pressure the U.S. to lay off B.C. salmon caught in Alaskan waters, all with Victoria’s blessing. “Our fishermen could hammer the hell out of those before they could reach the United States,” Wright explains. “My position there was, ‘You may possibly be bringing the U.S. to their knees, but at the same time you don’t want to wipe out our own Fraser River stocks.’ ”

That’s essentially what happened. Alaska simply didn’t care about the fate of the southern U.S. fishing industry, Wright says, so the aggressive fishing offensive proved to be as much a failure diplomatically as it was ecologically. In a Romeo and Juliet-like twist, the warring factions only began to see the error of their ways after some shocking casualties. Certain salmon stocks were nearly fished to oblivion, and in 1999 federal powers in the U.S. and Canada overruled local lobbies and struck a deal focused on conservation.

Of course, overfishing has been only part of the problem, Healey says, with changing ocean conditions and salmon behaviour baffling the biologists trying to predict each year’s returns. But he says the diplomatic process has calmed significantly since these issues became prominent. “Everyone now accepts that we’re all in this together, and unless we co-operate, we’re not going to have much of anything left to work with.”

While there’s still much to resolve, Wright argues that the fear of destroying salmon species did much to curtail the clout of the commercial fishing lobby in favour of conservationists. “It was just industry fighting over who got that last fish, but I think now it’s really a problem of sustainability,” he says. “It took almost 20 years for them to realize what the basic problem was: too much fishing on too few fish.”