WASHINGTON—Not since the Pig War of 1859 had tensions run as high along the U.S.-Canada border.
In 1994, the Canadian government announced a $1,500 fee on U.S. fishing boats headed to Alaska through British Columbia's "inside passage." In the United States, there was talk of assessing an oil pollution levy on Canadian tankers transiting the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Three years later, some 200 Canadian fishing vessels blockaded the Alaskan ferry Malaspina as it tried to leave the harbor at Prince Rupert. Some Canadians also were threatening to cancel the U.S. Navy's lease of a torpedo test range off Vancouver Island.
The fight a decade ago was over fish—Pacific salmon—and in the end a treaty was negotiated that defused the hostilities and ended talk of a salmon war.
But that treaty expires at the end of next year.
And while the situation isn't as volatile as it was in the 1990s or in 1859—when the United States and Canada almost came to blows over who owned the San Juan Islands and the only casualty was a pig—a new treaty could be key to the effort to revive endangered wild salmon stocks on both sides of the border, particularly Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook runs.
"Many of us remember what happened in the past, and we don't want to go down that road again," said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and one of four U.S. members of the Pacific Salmon Commission.
Allen and others say the atmosphere is far different than it was in the 1990s, and negotiations have so far taken a different tact, with less confrontation.
"This is critical stuff," said Allen. "If we can't do this piece it will be hard to justify the strong measures being sought by federal, state and local governments to restrict development, logging, hydro (power) and other things to protect listed stocks."
Negotiations began in earnest earlier this month in Portland, Ore. U.S. officials said preliminary talks had been constructive, though they warned it won't be easy to secure a new treaty given the complexities involved.
"It is a daunting challenge," said David Balton, deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries, who is the chief U.S. negotiator. "We are cautiously optimistic."
Even if a new treaty is negotiated, Balton said it could face additional challenges, including a review called a biological opinion on whether it violates the U.S. Endangered Species Act by allowing excessive fishing of salmon stocks that face extinction. Such biological opinions can be challenged in court.
Balton said a legal challenge might be avoided if "we are farsighted and intelligent. I hope the bi-op (biological opinion) will show we are better off with new rules than no rules at all."
During their lifespan, salmon migrate thousands of miles from where they hatch in inland rivers and streams to the North Pacific, where they grow into adults and start the journey back to their native waters to spawn and die.
Most Columbia River, Puget Sound and coastal Washington and Oregon salmon head north when they reach the ocean, traveling up the west side of Vancouver Island and along the British Columbia coast, with the chinook journeying as far as Alaska.
As the salmon return, fishermen in Alaska, Canada and off the coasts of Washington and Oregon catch them. These are the fisheries regulated by the Pacific Salmon Treaty. As the number of wild fish has dwindled, there are increasing concerns over how many salmon can be caught in the oceans before the runs disappear.
"If we don't solve the interception problem, we will never solve the recovery problem, and some of these stocks will go extinct," said Bill Bakke, executive director of the Native Fish Society, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Portland. "Columbia River, Puget Sound and all coastal stocks will be affected. This treaty is vital."
When it comes to the treaty, there is a certain triangulation involved, say those close to the negotiations.
Washington and Oregon argue the Canadians are catching too many endangered wild fish, and unless there are fishing restrictions their runs will become extinct. The Canadians say they understand the problem, but they aren't going to shut down their fishery to address endangered species issues in the United States while fishermen in Alaska are catching Canada's wild and endangered salmon. Alaska, meanwhile, feels everything is working fine and that it should be allowed to continue catching salmon from Canada, Oregon and Washington along with fish hatched in its own rivers and streams.
"Key players are trying to bridge the disagreements," said Allen.
Technically, the entire treaty isn't set to expire next year, but vital sections dealing with fishing and habit protection will.
Canadian officials were tight-lipped when asked about the negotiations.
"The treaty has worked well since the implementation of the 1999 agreement," the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "The government of Canada has been pleased with the degree of cooperation with the United States."
U.S.-CANADA BORDER DISPUTES
The United States and Canada may share the world's longest common border and be the world's largest trading partners, but the relationship hasn't been without its disputes:
_Revolutionary War—Following the war, Benjamin Franklin sought to persuade Britain to cede Canada to the United States. He was unsuccessful and border disputes continue today.
_Pork and Beans War—Also known as the Lumberjack's War, this bloodless 1838-39 dispute involved Maine's Aroostook Valley.
_Fifty-four Forty or Fight—President James Polk insisted that the Oregon Territory included most of present day British Columbia. Polk eventually accepted the 49th Parallel as the border.
_War Plan Red—In the 1930s, the United States had a plan to invade Canada. It was more of an academic exercise than an actual military strategy. Even so, Canada had a plan to defend itself against a U.S. invasion until the start of World War II.
_Territorial—These disputes stretch from Alaska's Beaufort Sea to Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine. There's also disagreement over the Northwest Passage. Canada says it's part of its internal waters and the United States insists it's an international waterway.
_Trade—Despite the North American Free Trade Agreement, there have been arguments over softwood lumber, wheat and Canada's so-called cultural restrictions on U.S. television and magazines.
_Foreign policy—The two countries have found themselves at odds over the Vietnam War, the status of Cuba and the war in Iraq.
(Sources: Britannica Encyclopedia, Washington Post, Globe & Mail (Canada) and Toronto Sun)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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