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    Peace in our time: The US-Canada fish war is over; the fish won ...

    Reprinted from Island Times, June 9, 1999.


    When American and Canadian officials presented their hard-wrought ten-year salmon treaty in Seattle last Friday, they declared the pact marked the beginning of a turnaround for depleted salmon stocks on both sides of the border.

    Commercial fishermen in the San Juans, however, didn’t fare well in the deal. They saw a hefty chunk of their share of the abundant Fraser River sockeye salmon run — the lifeblood of their fishery — bargained away by US trade negotiators in exchange for Canadian promises to intercept fewer endangered chinook salmon returning to the Columbia River and Puget Sound rivers like the Skagit.

    The consolation prize? A $35 million-dollar pot of buy-out money to entice fishermen to give up the fight to stay on the water. By 2002, say state officials, they want to cut the non-tribal commercial fishing fleet by at least half.

    Some island fishermen plan to take the buy-out. Others say they’ll hang in and hope for the best. But most believe their livelihood has been traded away as a bargaining chip in a game of international diplomacy and state politics. And they say it’s a bitter ending to a fishery that was once the envy of the world.

    Fish fights

    The agreement inked last Friday between US and Canadian negotiators ends five years of struggle over how to divide the salmon resource shared by both countries. Since the last treaty broke down in the early 1990s, the competing interests of fishermen in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon have clashed while populations of chinook and coho salmon have dwindled.

    Salmon born in both American and Canadian rivers migrate out into the Pacific Ocean to mature. As they eventually make their way back to their rivers of origin, they pass through a gantlet of fishing gear, first in Alaska, then in B.C. and finally in Washington and Oregon.

    Canadians have long felt the pinch from Alaskan fishing on salmon bound for northern B.C. rivers. As those stocks became threatened, Canada fished more heavily on salmon passing through their waters on their way back to rivers in the American Lower 48, which helped weaken those runs, as well.

    The Fraser River run of sockeye salmon has remained robust, but it too has been a point of contention. The Canadians have tried to use their leverage over American fishermen in the Puget Sound — for whom the Fraser sockeye is the last commercially-viable run — to squeeze concessions from the Alaskans.

    Frustrations on both sides of the border have led to several international outbursts. In 1994, Canadian fisheries officials initiated a “Canada First” strategy intended to catch as many fish as possible before they got to US waters. The Canadian Coast Guard detained several American fishing vessels that refused to pay a $1,100 “transit fee” Canadian authorities slapped on US boats going to Alaska from Washington. And American fishing boats briefly blockaded the Sidney, B.C.-bound ferry in Friday Harbor to protest the Canadian actions.

    In 1996, B.C. Premier Glen Clark urged Canadian officials to bar US warships from using a torpedo testing range on Vancouver Island. The following year, Canadian fishermen blockaded an American ferry for four days in Prince Rupert, B.C. to vent their rage at Alaskan interception of salmon returning to the Skeena and Nass rivers in northern B.C.

    More fish in the rivers, fewer in the nets

    The new US-Canada salmon treaty is based much more on conservation concerns than any in the past. Fixed fishing quotas are replaced with “abundance-based” management, in which catch limits are adjusted to the relative abundance of each salmon run. If managed properly, the new pact should mean more salmon returning to rivers in both countries, and, hopefully, stronger runs in the future. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that if the new agreement had been in effect the past few years, as many as 30 percent more fish would have returned to spawn in Puget Sound rivers, while the Columbia would have seen 40 percent higher return. The Snake River would have doubled its return rate, according to NMFS.

    To achieve this, there will be some sacrifice all around. Alaskan fishermen will take 20 percent fewer coho bound for rivers in northern British Columbia, while Canadians will take 40 percent fewer US-bound coho and chinook. In return, US fishermen in the San Juans and Strait of Juan de Fuca will get a smaller share of the sockeye returning to the Fraser River, just north of the border near Vancouver, B.C.

    To ease the pain, Washington State and the federal government will pony up about $35 million to buy out American fishing boats that have depended on the Fraser sockeye to stay economically viable. The feds will also fund $140 million for salmon management, habitat restoration and scientific research in both countries.

    The new salmon pact must still be approved by both federal governments, and the US Congress need to appropriate the nearly $180 million called for to fund implementation of the pact, but there seems to be little doubt Congress will do that.

    Tribal tradeoff

    Fishermen in the San Juan Islands see little to cheer about in the new treaty. And they’re especially upset that they’ll be taking a much heavier hit than area tribal fishermen.

    Curt Smitch, Governor Gary Locke’s salmon advisor, says the tribes decided not to share in the additional cuts in the Fraser sockeye fishery demanded by Canadian negotiators as the price of letting more American chinook and coho go by.

    Under the landmark Boldt decision, treaties signed with the tribes in the 1800s guarantee them the right to make their own fishery management decisions, independent of the state. Boldt also gave treaty tribes the right to half the harvest of fish in their traditional fishing areas.

    “The governor worked very hard to try to get the tribes to share in the reduction,” Smitch says. “However, they were very concerned about whether this undermined their treaty rights …The tribes chose not to reduce their allocation and participate in the buy-back, so the reduction in the US share comes out of the non-tribal commercial fishing fleet.”

    That means that instead of the 50-50 split between tribal and non-tribal fishermen envisioned in Boldt, the tribes will get half the American allocation of Fraser sockeye, while non-tribal commercial fishers will get a quarter. The rest will be traded back to Canada for taking fewer US-bound chinook and coho.

    Smitch says Locke decided the need to save Washington salmon runs outweighed the desire to preserve equity between tribal and non-tribal fisheries.

    “Our chinook stocks are endangered,” says Smitch, ” and we definitely need some relief from the Canadians. Up to 50 percent of the harvest of our Puget Sound stocks occurs in Canada … so we didn’t really have much chance of a long-tern rebuilding strategy without a US-Canada agreement.”

    Tribal fishing representative Lorraine Loomis says her people have already shouldered considerable sacrifices to conserve salmon stocks, including additional cuts under the US-Canada treaty, but they can go no further.

    “Salmon is our livelihood,” she says. “Tribal opportunities for economic development are extremely limited. Fishing is often the basis of many tribal economies. State governments, however, have almost unlimited opportunities for economic advancement.”

    The racial equation

    This angers local non-tribal fishermen, some of whom claim a family tradition of commercial fishing going back generations. They don’t mind taking a hit in the name of salmon conservation, they say, but it galls them that the Indians aren’t taking an equal reduction.

    “We paid the whole price for the treaty,” says Lopez reefnetter Jack Giard. “We’re the sacrificial lamb.”

    Giard, who spent years as a representative on the salmon treaty commission, says local commercial fishermen can’t help feeling resentful that their tribal counterparts will be allowed to catch twice as many sockeye as they are.

    “This doesn’t go a long way toward relieving racial tensions,” he says.

    When the Boldt decision first came down over 20 years ago, many non-Indian fishermen resisted the idea of having to split the harvest 50-50 with the tribes. Some of the outbursts of protest had unmistakable racial overtones, and while resentment has mellowed over the decades, there remains a divide along racial lines that is emphasized by having two sets of rules; one for Indians, one for everybody else.

    Given the history, non-tribal commercial fishermen are sensitive to being portrayed as racists, and most go to great lengths to show they bear no ill will toward Indian fishermen. But when they see their livelihood drying up while the tribes continue to fish, race becomes an unavoidable issue.

    “The burden has been put primarily on the non-Indian fishermen because that’s who the state has authority over,” says Mike Adams, head of the San Juan Gillnetters Association. “It’s a tough thing to swallow.”

    Alan “Skeeter” Lowe, a third generation fisherman from Friday Harbor, predicts legal action will be taken to challenge the uneven split of the US allocation of Fraser sockeye.

    “The Boldt decision said 50-50. And 75-25 isn’t 50-50, no matter how you cut it.”

    But Bruce Crawford, Assistant Director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the trade-off doesn’t violate Boldt.

    “Fishers don’t have the right (to half the harvest) per se,” he says. “That right belongs to the state,” which can trade it away in consideration of greater gain elsewhere. “The ability of the state to utilize its share for the greater good of the people of Washington is something the fishers don’t appreciate … We had to look at balancing the economic benefit to the state as a whole versus that 50-50 sharing benefit for the fishers.”

    The Buy-out Blues

    As local non-tribal fishermen get squeezed off the water through reduced allocations, will they take the buy-out deal that will be offered and leave fishing for good? For many, that depends on how much money is offered. While there is expected to be as much as $35 million available, how that will be divided up and distributed is yet to be worked out.

    Skeeter Lowe is skeptical the amounts available will be enough to properly compensate fishermen for abandoning their livelihoods. He calculates there will be about $30,000 available for each license the state wants to buy out. That, he says, won’t do it.

    “Thirty thousand dollars won’t pay my boat off,” he says. “It won’t get me out of the hole I’ve been put in over the past few years … I can’t afford to take a buy-out at that price. I couldn’t afford to take a buy-out at three times that.”

    Jack Giard from Lopez shares the sentiment.

    “I’d look askance at anything less than $60,000, myself,” he says.

    Giard agrees the fleet has to be drastically reduced for the remaining fishermen to make a living on the reduced sockeye allocation. But, he says, deciding whether to take the money or to stick with fishing will be “the hardest decision of my life … I want to go up and down that (reefnet) stand until I’m too old to do it anymore.”

    Mike Adams, though, is ready to throw in the towel. Weary after years of struggling against what he sees as a concerted effort by the state to put the non-tribal fishermen out of business, he says, “I’m not going to fish anymore … I’m hoping for some kind of license buy-back that give me a chance to recover what I’ve invested in my business.”

    Adams thinks a lot of other local fishermen will opt out, as well.

    “People have just been beat down and beat down and we just don’t know what else to do,” he says. “It’s a sad thing for Friday Harbor. We’re all pretty sad about it. It’s a bummer, through and through.”

    Skeeter Lowe also expects many of his compatriots to leave the fishery, but says he doesn’t have much choice but to keep fishing.

    “I’m 51 and pretty much untrainable,” he chuckles. “What else would I do?”

    So will he be there in late July, cranking up his boat engine and dropping his nets?

    “I’m going to be there, you bet.” he says. “That’s what I do.”

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