CHARLESTON — A treaty between the U.S. and Canada has allowed fisherman of both countries to fish each other's waters for the past 30 years, but a growing number of U.S. fisherman say the treaty's time is up.
The U.S.-Canada Albacore Treaty of 1981 granted reciprocal albacore tuna fishing privileges. The treaty's most recent term expired in 2011, and the State Department wants to renew it in 2013. But that doesn't sit well with fishermen such as Frank Akers and Rick Goche.
Akers, a Coos Bay fisherman who owns vessel Lanola, said the Canadian fleet has grown incredibly aggressive in the past few years, to the point of ganging up and actively cutting off U.S. fisherman at sea.
'They'll take over a spot," Akers said.
And that kind of behavior isn't just unprofessional. It can be dangerous.
'You're moving at a pretty good clip for being on the water with that big a piece of equipment," said Goche, who chairs the Oregon Albacore Commission
Many of these boats reach 100 feet in length and most have onboard freezers, said Goche, in contrast to smaller 'ice boats" that have to offload their catch immediately.
'They have an unfair advantage."
Heading to Canadian waters isn't a viable option for U.S. fishermen.
'Going to Canada wouldn't be much different than heading 1,000 miles straight out to sea," Akers said.
The number of Canadian tuna boats in U.S. waters has grown dramatically. After the number of Canadian tuna boats working U.S. waters reached about 200, the U.S. government capped the number at 110, said Wayne Heikkila, founder of the Western Fishboat Owners Association.
Both Goche and Heikkila attributed the aggressive growth and fishing practices of the Canadian fleet to Canada's practice of leasing fishing rights to Canadian boat owners.
'When they started putting values on the permits in Canada, the values on those permits went astronomically high," Goche said.
'So people started hiring rent-a-skippers and staying home. Now the hired captain has this huge lease payment they have to deal with," said Goche.
The treaty allows Canadian vessels to dock in specific U.S. ports, including Coos Bay. But Matt Ledoux, owner of Fishermen's Wharf seafood market and a repair diver for fishing boats in Charleston, said he can't remember ever seeing a Canadian fishing boat in the marina. Most of the larger boats return north with their catch as soon as they're full.
'So they're out there fishing as aggressively as they know how, knowing they're never going to meet us at the docks," Goche said. 'The result has been sort of a pack mentality that makes it so it's really difficult for U.S. fishermen to make a living."
When the treaty expired in 2011, it left U.S. tuna fisherman relatively unpressured. Heikkila said his organization had hoped to get a few seasons without Canadian pressure in order to generate more data about the costs and benefits of the treaty.
But he said the State Department has continued to push forward with a 2013 treaty renewal.
'The State Department is the main lead in the whole thing concerning the treaty," Heikkila said. 'Unfortunately, we don't think it's quite time yet until more data's been collected."
'We don't think there should be a (renewal) without data," he said. 'That's the way it's supposed to be."
The British Columbia Tuna Fishermen's Association recognizes there are issues with the way the treaty's been administered.
'There is an imbalance in the treaty," said Greg Holm, the Canadian group's vice president. 'If someone's unhappy with the way things are going, you have to listen to their concerns."
Holm said the association wants to move to an industry tribunal system, in which American and Canadian fisherman can file grievances against aggressive boats, in order to resolve the issues within the fishing community. The last thing fishermen want is more government intervention, said Holm.
Professional conflicts aside, Holm argued that maintaining the treaty is in the best interest of the American tuna fleet.
'There are several American boats that can't fish in U.S. waters because they have foreign crews, even though they have U.S. owners," Holm said.
And changing migratory trends might soon make Canadian waters prime albacore fishing grounds in the near future. U.S. boats may want to fish there.
'If they lose access to Canada now, in a few years they might really, really need it.
'In the presence of the treaty, these issues go away," Holm said. 'What we're basically trying to do is address the concerns brought to us by Americans."
Reporter Thomas Moriarty can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or email@example.com.