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Fish tales: Understanding (and solving?) the U.S.-Canadian salmon debate

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So why is there a problem with salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest?
      While it is, certainly, a country-to-country squabble between the United States and Canada, some say the problem -- and the solution -- has as much to do with the regional similarities shared among Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, as it does with our national boundaries.
      Add to this "regionalism vs. nationalism" debate a whole separate level of the argument, one that questions which individual fishers actually have the right to pull salmon from the water.
      "What you have are too many user groups going after the same fish," said Stan Hagen '63, a former B.C. cabinet member who attended PLU as a pre-seminary student.
      "First you have the political divisions: Alaska, British Columbia and Washington state. Then there are the various types of fishermen: those with native fishing rights, assorted commercial groups and sport fishermen," he said.


The (fish)bone of contention

Chinook and coho salmon migrate to Alaskan waters to spawn. In British Columbia's interpretation, Hagen said, Alaskans are intercepting Canada's fish, but Washingtonians feel the same way: that Canadians are dipping into the waters and snatching fish that would eventually reach Washington waters. Clearly, some solution is needed -- fast.
      And, as Hagen tells it, overfishing and quarrels over who has the right to fish where are not the only forces calling for a quick settlement of the conflict.
      "El Nino's warmth has caused a huge increase in schools of mackerel from the south," he noted, adding that mackerel love to dine on baby salmon.
      "So four years from now, when those salmon would have matured into catchable fish, we're going to have an even smaller stock to work with," he said.
      With so many different players operating in a web of political and social levels, how do we even choose a framework to assess the problem of the dwindling salmon supply in the Northwest?


United States vs. Canada? Looking to literature for perspective
"Over the last 20 years or so, this part of the continent has increasingly been seen as a common region, with the U.S.-Canadian border becoming less and less important," said Peter Grosvenor, a political science professor at PLU. He discussed two books from recent decades that can help people understand the fishing debate from a regional, vs. a national, perspective.
      "Ectopia," a 1975 novel by Ernest Callenbach, was based on the premise of California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the United States in protest of nuclear weapons. The former states made up a new nation, one set apart by its concern for the environment.
      This idea was then picked up in the '80s by Joel Garreau, former editor of the Washington Post. His 1981 book, "The Nine Nations of North America," a factual observation, suggests that the official political maps of the United States, Canada and Mexico bear little relationship to reality.
      There are actually nine nations in North America, Garreau said, that distinguish themselves by such common features as culture, climate, commerce and environmental concerns. For example, an area that includes Mexico, Arizona and other parts of the Southwest holds a distinct "Tex-Mex" identity.
      "If we extend Callenbach's idea for our region to include British Columbia and the Alaskan coastline," Grosvenor said, "what you have is a large area, such as Garreau suggests, with a similar world view, geographic terrain and political/environmental issues.
      "President Clinton himself has heralded this as the Pacific Age," he said. "Our art, food and geographic identity, even our common growing relations with Asia, are seen as a model for the way the world is going."


"Why can't we all just get along?"
If, as some suggest, the Northwest areas of Canada and the United States are becoming one "Cascadia," why does the current salmon conflict remain insoluble? Part of the explanation lies in introducing another "ism" -- globalism.
      Closely related to its regional counterpart, globalism suggests that we "basically make the world a better place through global free trade and environmental protections," Grosvenor said. "National boundaries don't disappear, but they become blurred. And our Cascadia is a case study for globalism."
      But the current, multilevel salmon debate runs directly counter to the harmony a globalist's Cascadia would suggest. Why?
      "Globalism is strongest when we're dealing with abundance, vs. a scare resource," Grosvenor said. "So when push comes to shove, the flags come out, and people identify themselves once again as members of a nation."


So what is the answer?
If this all sounds confusing, there's a good reason: it is. "We may be waging the salmon conflict at a regional level," Grosvenor said, "but only at a national level is it going to be solved."
      To that end, Stan Hagen notes one possible solution. "Canada and the United States need to study the example of how resources are managed for another local sport and commercial fish: halibut," he said. The International Halibut Commission, comprising representatives from Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, sets rules for halibut fishing across the board, equally for all involved.
      "The upshot is that there are now more halibut available for the various fishing groups than there were before the agreement," Hagen said.
      Concerning the salmon supply, there is nothing to be gained from international finger-pointing and retaliatory actions, he continued.
      "We should be looking at the structure of the I.H.C. and the reason it succeeds," Hagen said, "because it truly exists to serve the resource. If we don't do the same type of thing with salmon, the stocks will disappear."


Fish don't have pockets
A person could say that fish aren't too smart, at least not in geography. They don't know whether the water in which they live is off the coast of North America, South Yemen or Stratford-upon-Avon. They only know how to do a few things -- swim, eat and spawn -- and these occur without knowledge of international boundaries or whose right it is to take them from the water.
      According to Hagen, this might be the key to approaching any new agreements.
      "Fish don't have pockets, they can't carry passports and they have neither an idea nor a care about whose water they're swimming in," he said. "We might have better luck solving the salmon problem if we took a similar stance and stopped looking at this from an 'us vs. them' orientation.
      "My thought is that the fish don't belong to either Canada or the United States. They are a common property and resource of the human race. We have to start asking, 'What are we all going to do about this together?'"

More information on the U.S.-Canadian salmon wars can be obtained from http://headlines.yahoo.com/Full_Coverage/Canada/Canada_U_S__Salmon_War/.

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