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Mending the US-Canada fishing net in Georges Bank

Relations between the United States and Canada are starting to show the strain of the US delay in coming to terms with its neighbor to the north on two controversial maritime treaties. Long and arduous negotiations over how to divide up maritime and fishing rights in the Atlantic produced the treaties more than a year ago. However, the US Senate, which must ratify them, has shown little enthusiasm for taking up the issue -- largely because American fishermen complain that the treaties are unfair, that they give Canadian fishers greater access to and a larger share of the commercially valuable fishing stock in the Georges Bank area.

Tension among officials and fishermen on both sides of the border has been mounting. Some US and Canadian fishermen have vowed to continue violating fishing quotas established in the treaties in order to demonstrate their displeasure. Canadian officials call the long-simmering fisheries dispute "the most serious bilateral issue we have with any country." Unless the Senate -- and the Carter administration -- display greater interest than they have to date in working out some sort of compromise, US-Canada dealings in a number of other critical economic areas could suffer. For instance, a hardening of Canadian attitudes could affect the planned construction of a US natural-gas pipeline across Canada and joint measures under discussion to combat acid-rain pollution.

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The Carter administration supports the treaties but has made no push for ratification. Secretary of state Muskie, well familiar with the treaty issues from his long experience as a Maine senator, at first gave the treaties lukewarm support. But lately he is reported to have backed off from his original position and is said to harbor reservations about the treaties. Mr. Muskie ought to clarify his stand and step forward with the strong leadership needed to spur Senate action.

The primary complaint of US fishermen is with the way the fisheries treaties provide for the management of fish stocks and allocate the size of various catches. For instance, Canada would be entitled to more than 73 percent of the highly valuable scallops catch. According to New England fishermen, reducing their quota from the current 35 percent to 26 percent of the catch would cost them $17 million a year. Objections also are raised to the permanent nature of the treaties. Unlike most such agreements, these include no provision for unilateral withdrawal nor do they leave open the possibility for altering quotas or redrawing fishing jurisdiction later on.

Such basic questions will have to be addressed in the Senate sooner or later. Eight senators have proposed amendments that would make the treaties more acceptable to US fishing interests. The amendments would put a three-year time limit on the treaty provisions, establish separate jurisdictions for Canada and US fishing (currently no restrictions are placed on where Canadians can fish for scallops), and give the US a say over the management of the scallops stock within its jurisdiction.

In the final analysis, only treaties that all parties can accept as equitable will be workable. The Senate may very well determine that the treaties need amending. This could further complicate US-Canadian relations. But if the treaties continue to languish without some show of interest by the Senate, US-Canadian relations are likely to deteriorate in any case. It is time to get the treaties unstuck.

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