Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

US Canada Albacore Treaty

By Mark Edward Nero


December 1, 2017

Albacore fishing from the Oregon-based F/V Amy Lyn. Photo courtesy of the American Albacore Fishing Association.

The current occupant of the White House was swept into office as part of a nationalist wave that included the now famous slogan "Make America Great Again." So you might think that the Trump Administration would be eager to root out and dispose of treaties that it believes are biased against Americans or American interests.

In fact, this past April, President Trump issued an edict about just such a thing. Executive Order 13796 declares that it is the policy of the United States "to renegotiate or terminate any existing trade agreement, investment agreement, or trade relation that, on net, harms the United States economy, United States businesses, United States intellectual property rights and innovation rate, or the American people."

But all throughout 2017, fishermen along the West Coast have been saying that a 36-year-old fishing treaty between the US and Canada unfairly favors the Canadians and that the US State Dept. is so far refusing to do anything about it.

The accord in question is the Treaty Between the Governments of Canada and the United States on Pacific Albacore Tuna Vessels and Port Privileges, which allows US vessels to fish for albacore tuna in Canadian waters seaward of 12 miles from shore, and for Canadian vessels to fish for albacore in US waters seaward of 12 miles from shore.

In addition to the above provisions, the treaty defines when vessels from one country can fish in the waters of the other. This is June 15 to Sept. 15 for Canadian vessels, and through Oct. 31 for US vessels.

The treaty, which has been in effect since 1981, also allows Canadian vessels to use certain American ports to obtain supplies and services and to land fish; US vessels can use certain Canadian ports for the same purposes. In addition, the treaty calls for the exchange of fisheries data between the two governments on an annual basis.

It is the statistical data regarding the amount of fish caught on each side of the border that has some Americans upset and calling for changes to the treaty's language.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has jurisdiction over a 317,690 square mile zone off Washington, Oregon and California, and manages fisheries for about 119 species of fish, asked that when the treaty was renewed, language be inserted assuring that fish caught in the US Exclusive Economic Zone ("EEZ") by Canadian vessels get properly attributed and allocated to the US. This was deemed necessary in the event future management results in international quotas on the harvest of albacore. Without this language, the US would not be assured of getting credit for all take in its waters.

As the situation played itself out, it attracted the attention of numerous members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, five of whom back in mid-2016 signed a letter to the federal Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES – a division of the State Department) regarding the issue.

"The treaty has heavily favored and benefitted Canadian fishermen over US fishermen," the letter, which was signed by House of Representatives members Jared Huffman (D-CA), Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Don Young (R-Alaska) as well as Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan (both R-Alaska), said in part. "US fishermen have fished significantly in Canadian waters in only three of the 35 years of the treaty's existence. Canadian fishermen, however, have consistently fished in the US zone, harvesting over 80 percent of their total albacore catch annually in US waters."

According to data supplied to Fishermen's News by Southern California-based industry organization West Coast Fisheries Consultants, in 2016, American vessels caught 10,686 metric tons of albacore, with 150 metric tons taken within Canada's EEZ. Canadian vessels, on the other hand, landed a total of 2,842 metric tons, with 1,262 metric tons of that taken in the US EEZ.

Over a 20-year span between 1995 and 2015, there was a total US catch of 4,564 metric tons in the Canadian EEZ, compared to 65,072 metric tons by Canadian vessels in the US EEZ.

The economic value of albacore harvested by US vessels in the Canadian EEZ is dwarfed by that of tuna harvested by Canadian vessels in the US EEZ. If a value of $4,000/short ton is assumed, then the US harvested about $600,000 worth of albacore from the Canadian EEEZ in 2016, while Canadians harvested more than $5 million worth from the US zone that year.

The disparity has caused some Americans to say that the US is subsidizing a foreign nation's fisheries while disadvantaging US harvesters. And this was raised during last year's negotiations to extend the accord.

"When the treaty expired in December of 2016, they started renegotiating an extension. In early 2017 we received the draft documents that were being circulated and agreed upon between the US and Canada," West Coast Fisheries Consultants President Mike Conroy explained to Fishermen's News. "Rather than requiring that attribution and allocation, it left that up to a voluntary arrangement between the two parties."

"That is not at all satisfactory to industry and doesn't comply with what the Pacific Fishery Management Council asked," Conroy said. "Nor does it meet with what the senators and congressman had demanded of the State Department."

Among those unhappy with the situation is Wayne Heikkila, executive director of the Western Fishboat Owners' Association (WFOA), a non-profit association that represents albacore troll-vessel owners and supporting businesses in Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and Hawaii.

"It affects us quite a bit," Heikkila said, before explaining more about the history of the accord. "The treaty's been around since 1981 and was originally pushed by US fishermen to get access to Canadian waters when there were quite a bit of fish up there at the time, but there were hardly any Canadian albacore fishermen at the time, maybe half a dozen."

Since late 2011, the WFOA and American Albacore Fishing Association (AAFA) have worked together to get a handle on the issue, which became more pronounced when there was a major shift of effort of Canadian albacore boats into the US EEZ starting in 1996.

"When they (in the Canadian government) started getting restrictive out of their other fisheries in the late '90s, their fleets expanded to 300-plus boats that were fishing in the US waters in the late '90s and we figured it was time to take a look at this, how it's written," he said.

Over the years, there have been three attempts to ratchet down the effort through negotiations between the US and Canadian governments, according to the WFOA. Things came to a head in 2012 when the treaty was suspended for the 2012 season, but the governments put it back in place in 2013 for one year at a reduced number of vessels and stated that a phase-out of the remaining treaty was started.

The following year, a new three-year rule was negotiated.

"We've been through four or five different sessions since the late '90s, kind of renegotiating it, or whatever you want to call it, and made some changes over the years, bits and pieces," Heikkila explained. "It has eventually gotten to where Canadians are (now) allowed 45 boats in the US waters and the US is allowed a 'historical' amount in Canadian waters."

Historical is defined, Heikkila said, as "pretty much unlimited," but that the US hasn't had a significant presence up in the waters of the Great White North over the last 20 years.

"Anywhere from 15 to 30 boats maybe, at the most," Heikkila said, commenting that it was a steep downward slide from the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the albacore tuna treaty when, he said there were "hundreds" of US boats that fished up there a couple years in a row due to an abundance of fish.

"A lot of the 45 boats on (the Canadian) list are high-powered boats that catch the most fish. A lot of guys that have been doing it a long time in the smaller boats up there kind of got aced out in their permit process," Heikkila said. "Guys with boats and companies that own boats up there have sold their permits on the open market; I've heard for up to $200,000 to $250,000 just to get access to the US zone."

"I know guys don't like so many Canadian boats," he said. "I think most guys would go for a reduction in the number of boats again, say around 20, 25 boats. Whether that happens or not, I don't know."

Part of the reason they would like a reduction, he said is because of the highly competitive Canadian fishers that sometimes crowd out Americans.

"This year's a good example," he continued. "There wasn't much fish on the coast and where there was, it was in small spots and guys get on 'em, and (the number of) fish wouldn't hold up for very long. So you have their fleet that's pretty aggressive getting onto those spots and they kind of drive the fish away."

"The Canadians tend to be very aggressive in their (albacore) fishing techniques and approach," he continued. "I think they're used to sockeye fishing or something in Canada. We've had problems on the grounds – not too much, but once in a while. If a guy's on a school of fish or something, the other boat will come in and crowd him out, within feet of his boat. They get right up to him to try to get in his ae level of discomfort that American fishermen have had with the treaty and their Canadian counterparts can vary by year.

"Two years ago there were more fish up in Canadian waters than we had seen in awhile, so a lot of their boats stayed up there. So we had more of a pleasant year," he said. "It depends on the circumstance at the time."

According to the Dept. of Fisheries & Oceans Canada, or DFO, the federal organization that manages Canada's fisheries, vessels of 35 to 60 feet long typically fish from Canadian waters all the way down to the Southern California coast during albacore tuna season, with ocean conditions, the availability of albacore and abundance and distribution of salmon all influencing the size and distribution of the Canadian tuna fleet in any particular year.

"The Canadians definitely have a better deal – the ones with the permits, I should say," Heikkila remarked. "There are 60 or 70 fishermen up there that have no chance of getting a permit that have fished albacore for years and years, but the ones that come down definitely catch the fish and then they take 'em back to Canada and sell 'em up there."

"It's always been like that, we've tried to make it a bit more equitable as we go along, but we recognize too that it'll probably never be equitable unless you get down to something like 10 boats, but Canadians probably wouldn't allow too many US boats in their waters if that happened," he explained.

The US State Dept. did not comment to Fishermen's News for this article, and AAFA and Pacific Fishery Management Council say that no progress has been made in recent months regarding a change in treaty language, something that they consider surprising considering how the Trump Administration, and President Trump himself have touted Trump's eagerness to strengthen America's negotiating might, particularly in the wake of his April executive order regarding renegotiating or terminating trade deals that are perceived as harmful to Americans and US businesses.

"I think this (albacore tuna) treaty definitely falls under that executive order," Conroy, the West Coast Fisheries Consultants president, told Fishermen's News. "And it's disheartening to see that the State Department has not followed the advice of the Senate and Congress and the Pacific Fishery Management Council and not ensured that US industry benefits from natural resources taken out of its waters."


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