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'Captain Canada' Just Posing in Fish Fight With US, Critics Say

SOME Canadians are questioning whether their country's summer "salmon war" with Alaska may be just a political red herring to mask their government's own failure to rein in rampant domestic overfishing.

"No party is free of guilt," says Catherine Stewart, a Vancouver spokeswoman for Greenpeace. "Canadians have not managed their salmon habitat well. We build condos on stream banks, marinas on marshlands, and dump toxic waste in estuaries. And yes, we've also been overfishing, too."

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Only a month ago, Canadian fisheries minister Brian Tobin verbally keelhauled Alaskan fishermen for catching in a "frenzy of greed" scarce chinook salmon southbound for British Columbia rivers.

This week he announced new legal action to fight the Alaskans. Targeting foreign enemies to blame for shortages in coastal fisheries is nothing new for Mr. Tobin. He has repeatedly gone on the attack to stop "overfishing" by foreigners (Spain was the target this winter) and in the process eased domestic tensions over unemployment and declining ocean fisheries on both coasts, analysts say.

But hot rhetoric aside, criticism of Tobin is growing along with rising calls for Canada to take swifter action to reduce the size of its own commercial fishing fleet of more than 5,000 vessels.

Jeffrey Simpson, a national columnist for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper, described Tobin in Tuesday's editions as "posing as the prince of conservation." He chided Tobin for encouraging Canadians to "forget that just last year he sanctioned a genuine frenzy of greed" by encouraging the commercial fishing fleet to catch as many salmon as possible to prevent them from being caught by US fishermen.

Tobin took a different tack this spring. He took the moral high ground by cutting Canadian chinook harvest quotas in half in June and calling on Alaska to do the same. Alaska refused.

Chasing too few fish

This week as Alaskan fishermen gear up for their third round of chinook fishing this summer, "Captain Canada," as Tobin is now sometimes called, said his department will file legal papers supporting an application for a court injunction to stop Alaskan fishermen from taking more chinook. The injunction application was entered Aug. 4 in US District Court in Seattle by Oregon and Washington native American groups.

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"They [Alaskan fishermen] have pretty well taken all the fish they ought to take if the health of the [chinook] stock is to be protected," Tobin said in San Francisco, where he is campaigning for more US support.

But activists say that while Canada has reined in its pursuit of chinook, the basic problem elsewhere in its own waters - too many people chasing too few fish - remains unchanged.

"We see the federal government pay lip service to conservation, but [conservation] is really being thrown out the window," says Craig Orr, executive director of the Steelhead Society of B.C., a group representing anglers. "The government manages [salmon resources] by whichever lobby group is the strongest. The commercial fleet goes to Ottawa all the time to lobby Tobin. The sport fishermen and Indians can't do that."

Waiting for dwindling chinook

Although Tobin preaches protection for the dwindling chinook, hundreds of Canadian vessels sat this week in the near Vancouver Island, waiting for Canadian fisheries officers to signal them to let down their nets and scoop up a multimillion-dollar prize of sockeye salmon.

Salmon run upriver from June through early November. But last year at least 3.2 million fewer salmon than expected spawned in B.C.'s rivers. And a government-appointed panel earlier this year castigated Tobin's fisheries department for permitting Canada's commercial fleet to overfish the salmon.

At press time, the large Fraser River sockeye run appeared to be far short of what was expected. Only 3.5 million of 11 million fish that were expected appear likely to return to the Fraser in B.C. government officials said Wednesday.

"Environmentalists are calling for fewer boats, but that's based on a superficial analysis," says Dennis Brown, vice president of the United Fisherman and Allied Workers Union, representing 6,000 of the 25,000 people employed in the salmon industry in British Columbia. "If we don't manage the salmon fishery well, a lot fewer [big boats with high-tech gear] can still destroy it."

Others say, however, that a refocusing of policy priorities is needed. While government preaches a two-pronged "equity and conservation" model - the equity part is emphasized. That means if US fishermen take more than their share, the government has in years past simply let Canadian fishermen take more fish too - even if fewer show up.

The irony is clear to Canadians who have long felt that Canada led the US in conservation regarding salmon. "In Oregon, Washington, California you see salmon conservation rising to the top of the heap," says Jim Fulton of the David Suzuki Foundation, an environmental group in Vancouver. "But here in B.C. the main voices are still commercial and ... the issue of conservation has dimmed."

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