SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Alaska/Canada Salmon 'War' Was 10 Years Ago



July 19, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - Last fall, a delegation of Ketchikan officials visited Prince Rupert to get an update on the Canadian city's new $200 million dollar container port and to learn how Ketchikan shippers could use the port to send products abroad.

At one point during one of the discussions a Canadian official remarked that he was concerned that Alaskans were still upset about "that unpleasantness."

The Alaskans had no idea what he was talking about.

"The salmon situation," he continued. "The ferry. The war."

The "War?"

Oh yes, the war. The Alaska-Canada Salmon "War" of 1997.

The dispute over the allocation of salmon on the Pacific Coast that led to Canadian fishermen blockading the Alaska state ferry Malaspina in Prince Rupert for three days.

It led to the state suspending ferry service to Northern B.C. for nearly five months, crippling much of the local economy that depended on business from travelers that used the ferry to and from Alaska.

The Alaskan visitors had clearly forgotten the "unpleasantness."

But the Canadians had not and were worried that relations between the two neighbors - a scant 90 miles apart and tied for generations by culture as much as geography- might still be frayed.

Salmon debate goes back decades

The blockade started 10 years ago today.

The roots of the blockade went back to 1970, according to Lilith Wood's article in the Winter 1998 edition of the Princeton Journal of Foreign of Affairs, when 15 years of frequently rancorous negotiations began, eventually leading to 1985's Pacific Salmon Treaty.

The issue was a basic one. Salmon know no borders and after being in reared in one territory's waters, often moved up the coast to live out their life cycle before returning to their native stream to spawn and die. Pacific Northwest salmon went into Canadian and Alaskan waters. Canadian salmon went into Alaskan waters and Alaskan salmon occasional crossed the north Pacific into other nations' waters. The only question was how much of one area's "native" population was being "intercepted" by fishermen in other countries.

Wood wrote that initially the 1985 treaty seemed to work well, but yearly revisions or "annexes" to the treaty - meant to help determine each country's annual allotments - ground to a halt in 1994.

Both the United States and Canada then engaged in a war of words over the harvest. Both countries contended that they alone were following the treaty guidelines and both contended the other side was "over harvesting." Each claimed that they had made more sacrifices in the name of salmon conservation and that the other was hurting the long-term viability of the resource by "over fishing."

"In February 1997, the Pacific Salmon Commission brought fishermen from each side of the conflict to the bargaining table," Wood wrote in 1998. "While the government to government talks had difficulty moving beyond the assertion of positions, the stakeholders were able to propose solutions fairly quickly."

Unfortunately, both the US and Canadian governments intervened and Canada called off the talks on May 9, 1997. The Canadians said the American side was inflexible and would not negotiate. US officials accused the Canadians of "walking out" because they didn't get all their demands.

Talks were restarted, but quickly ground to a halt again on May 21. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans immediately boosted enforcement of - rarely enforced - laws that required US vessels transiting Canada to check with Canadian officials. The Canadians also announced that a transit fee of up to $1,500 might be collected for vessels transiting BC waters in the future.

Four American fishing vessels were briefly detained in Port Hardy for not checking in and the war of words escalated.

Murkowski: Coast Guard should intervene

"Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski called for the U.S. Coast Guard to act as escorts for fishing boats making the trip up to Alaska," Wood wrote. "Most U.S. officials did not react so melodramatically, believing British Columbia's June election had accounted for the recent rise in political tough talk."

But when talks resumed after the June election, they immediately broke down again and newly elected BC premier Glen Clark accused the United States of both violating the salmon treaty and intentionally over fishing to hurt BC's fishermen.

On July 16, 1997 Clark called for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to take action against the Americans for "unprecedented Alaska catches of B.C.-bound salmon." Clark contended that Alaskan harvesting of pink salmon resulted in high catches of B.C. sockeyes. Alaskans said the sockeye catch was incidental.

Up an down the coast, 1997, had been a bad year for salmon harvests and fishermen nearly everywhere were faced with low returning runs. The only place that was showing higher than expected catches was District 4, the outside of Prince Of Wales Island, and Canadians demanded the US shut down the fishery.

On July 18, Canadian officials charged that US salmon fishermen were on the verge of taking more than 10 times their limit by the end of the summer if steps were not taken to limit the District 4 fishery. Clark told the Associated Press that "he was appalled by the catch rate." Meanwhile, Alaska officials continued to dispute the numbers that Canadians were reporting.

Later that day, the Canadian Foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axeworthy sent a "sternly worded" note to the U.S. State Department charging that the U.S. was violating the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

U.S. officials responded that while the by catch of Canadian sockeye had increased in 1997, it was not a deliberate attempt to target the Canadian salmon.

Clark continued to ramp up the rhetoric by announcing that a "full fledged salmon war" had broken out on the Pacific Coast. He demanded that the Canadian government target Washington and Oregon salmon stocks that passed through Canadian waters and he also demanded that the Canadian government prevent the US from using a torpedo testing range near Vancouver Island.

Malaspina's normal run interrupted

The next day, Saturday morning, the Alaska State Ferry Malaspina sailed into the eye of the storm.

The ferry arrived in Prince Rupert around 5 a.m., but the port was unusually busy, according to Ketchikan resident Richard Van Cleave, who was on board heading to Rupert.

"You could tell something was up," he said. "It was like the fishing boats closed in after the ship docked."

Mary Cannon was working on the Malaspina when it docked. She told the Ketchikan Daily News later that Prince Rupert cleaning ladies came on board and warned her that the ship was going to be blocked from leaving the dock to return to Ketchikan.

Paul Scott, another ferry employee, told the Daily News that he noticed about 25 fishing boats near the ferry's bow by 5 a.m. By 7 a.m., the number had increased to 75.

Eventually, nearly 200 boats would block the path of the ferry.

Seaman David Rayner told the Ketchikan Daily News that things were pretty "tense" until it became clear that the blockading fishermen didn't intend to do much more than block the ferry and hurl invective from their boats.

"For the most part these people are kind of reasonable," Rayner told the Daily News. "They wanted to make their point with their politicians, get some attention and light a fire under their politicians."

Ferry boatswain John Cannon was less forgiving.

"We did nothing," he told the Daily News. "We didn't talk to them and did nothing to intimidate them. They treated us like we're the enemy. We're just a passenger service."

In addition to the ship's 50 crewmembers, some 200 northbound passengers were now stranded in Prince Rupert. Some made other travel arrangements, but most were left to wait out the blockade.

The blockade dragged on for three days, while politicians railed on both sides of the border.

Alaska State Senator Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, told Ketchikan's KRBD-FM that he was ready to "hop on a boat" and lead a "relief expedition" to Prince Rupert to rescue the ferry.

"If need be, I'll stand on the bow of the ferry and we'll bust it out of there," he said.

Clark 'respected' blockaders

In Prince Rupert local officials - fearing major damage to the town's tourism industry - asked the fishermen to stand down and let the ferry leave. But in Victoria, Premier Clark was quoted voicing support for the blockade and saying he respected the fishermen taking part.

On Sunday, Canadian federal fisheries manager David Anderson arrived in Prince Rupert and met with the leaders of the blockade. Anderson flew on to Ketchikan and met with Alaskan officials, according to the Ketchikan Daily News. He also flew over the District 4 fishing grounds.

Discussions continued through Monday. Finally, at 10 p.m., the Malaspina was allowed to leave Prince Rupert and the salmon "war" was over, for the most part.

In the wake of the blockade, Alaskan officials limited fishing in District 4 for the rest of the season and Canadian officials promised to ensure free passage for ferries and other vessels to and from Alaska.

Both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table, although it would be some time before a workable treaty extension would be reached.

Both Alaska and British Columbia also filed suit against each other, but the lawsuits were dropped a year later when both governments agreed to boost cross-border tourism promotion.

Alaskans - in general - were no hurry to resume ferry service to Prince Rupert despite the chaos the lack of the service caused in terms of summer travel and shipping.

Over the next few months there was much discussion about the future of Alaska ferry service into Prince Rupert.

State Sen. Robin Taylor suggested the service be abandoned that the service should instead go up Portland Canal to Hyder where it could connect into the British Columbia road system. State ferry system head Bob Doll told that Ketchikan Daily News in August that all options were being considered, including just increasing service on the Bellingham to Alaska run.

Ferry returned in December

But state ferries did eventually return to northern British Columbia.

On Dec. 4, 1997, the Aurora returned to Prince Rupert with much fanfare, including Canadian national media coverage, cheers as the ship docked and speeches by both city's mayors.

Prince Rupert Mayor Jack Mussallem told the Ketchikan Daily News that his city was badly hurt by the loss of the ferry service, a point that was driven home when a local gas station owner said his business - located next to the ferry terminal - had dropped several hundred thousand dollars during the five month ferry shutdown.

Not all Prince Rupert residents were glad to see the return of the Alaska ships.

A pair of Canadian fishermen watched the proceeding and then loudly accused Mussallem of "kissing Alaska's (expletive)" according to the Ketchikan Daily News coverage on December 5.

Eventually both sides hashed out their differences with the process and another salmon treaty was signed in 1999.

But that treaty, or at least sections dealing with fishing and habitat protection, needs to be renegotiated before the end of 2008. And most of the issues that caused the war of words to turn into blockade of the Malaspina remain unsettled.

"Washington and Oregon argue that the Canadians are catching too many endangered wild fish and unless there are fishing restrictions their runs will become extinct," McClatchey Newspapers Washington Bureau reporter Les Blumenthal reported in February 2007 in a story about the negotiations starting up again. "The Canadians say they understand the problem, but 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 that 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."

Meanwhile, officials in both Ketchikan and Prince Rupert look forward to continued good "international" relations and have faith that the "unpleasantness" of the ferry blockade and the three day salmon "war" of 1997 was something that was an aberration in the century of good will between the coastal neighbors and not a harbinger of things to come.


Editors's note: Dave Kiffer helped report on the blockade for KRBD-FM in 1997. His reports also aired on National Public Radio and the BBC.


On the Web:

Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
To republish this article, the author requires a publication fee.
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Dave Kiffer ©2007

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