BY PAUL KOURI
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -The conflict is deepening between the Canadian and U.S. governments and fish industry capitalists over who will get how much of the lucrative salmon catch along the northwest coast of North America.
For months Canadian politicians, led by BC premier Glen Clark, have been campaigning against U.S. fishermen and accusing fishers from Alaska of catching "Canadian" sockeye. Worried about a possible trade war with Washington, Ottawa has adopted a less strident tone against the United States.
"We are not going to allow those Americans, those pirates to catch our fish, steal our fish, and take food out of the mouth of our families," Clark warned reporters July 18. Two Native American fishers were arrested and fined $4,000 for fishing in "Canadian waters."
After the latest set of negotiations to establish fishing quotas between the two governments failed recently, Canadian Fisheries Minister David Anderson announced a policy of fishing aggressively, putting conservation of the fish stocks at risk, in the name of forcing the U.S. industry to bend to Ottawa's demand for a larger share of the quota for salmon fishing. Clark added, "We can inflict some serious harm on the U.S. catch."
On July 18, about 100 Canadian fishing boats formed a blockade to prevent two U.S. ships laden with salmon from reaching a Prince Rupert cannery. After the U.S. boats were escorted out of the harbor by Canadian police the fishers decided to move their boats to block the exit of an Alaskan ferry docked in Prince Rupert. In response to the three-day blockade, which at its height involved 250 boats, the ferry suspended visits to Prince Rupert. The Alaskan government has launched a lawsuit against Canadian the participating fishermen.
On July 23 the U.S. Senate passed a nonbinding resolution urging President William Clinton to respond to the ferry blockade with "appropriate action," such as boycotting selected Canadian products, blocking Canadian vessels from anchoring in U.S. waters without formal clearance, and banning fish or shellfish taken in British Columbia from entering the United States.
While the ferry blockade made for dramatic coverage across North America and elsewhere, the underlying causes of the crisis facing fishermen have been largely ignored and subsumed by the chauvinist rhetoric on both sides of the border.
The salmon catch in Canada is worth Can$450 million (US$326 million). Thousands of workers toil on the boats and in six processing plants. Many are unionized. James Sinclair, vice president of the largest fishery workers union in B.C., the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, welcomed Anderson's strategy. "We're happy to see we're going to go out and fight this war, " he declared.
Several fishermen from Steveston just south of Vancouver explained the desperate conditions many of them are facing. They underlined the "ridiculously low" price that the large processing plants owned by a handful of wealthy capitalists intend to pay for sockeye this year. "They are paying us $1.10 per pound, and then selling it in the stores for $7. We should tie up our boats here and refuse to fish until we get a decent price," skipper Aurele Girard told the Militant.
The Canadian west coast fishing industry is dominated by a small number of companies who own or control at least half the boats in the BC fishing fleet.
In addition, Ottawa has imposed the "Mifflin plan," which aims to drive even more of the smaller fishermen out of the industry through major increases in the cost and the number of licenses required to fish the entire coast.
While both sides in the dispute blame each other for overfishing, the facts show that the capitalists who run this lucrative industry on both sides of the border and the governments who speak for them are only concerned with maximizing their profits. They express no interest in the conservation of fish stocks. The stocks have been in decline for decades because of destruction of the spawning rivers. In addition to overfishing, destructive logging practices, hydroelectric dams, and pollution of the waters have also taken their toll.
A commission established by Ottawa in 1994 to study the Canadian salmon fishery sharply criticized Ottawa and the fishing industry for the precipitous decline of salmon stocks. It said that incompetence by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that year nearly led to the extinction of the Adams River salmon run, the most important salmon stock on the west coast.
The Canadian government and fishing industry have come under closer scrutiny since the destruction from overfishing of the cod species on Canada's Atlantic coast. In 1992, 50,000 fishermen and fish processing workers there and in Europe were thrown out of work overnight when the Canadian government was obliged to declare a moratorium on cod, the most valuable species in the east coast fishery.
Paul Kouri works in a factory making cans for the salmon
industry and is a member of the United Steelworkers of
America union in Vancouver.
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