Discussions about renewing the U.S.-Canada albacore tuna treaty are an interesting microcosm of international trade and conservation issues, starting with the fact that it will be very difficult to find a completely satisfying compromise.

In theory, in fisheries as in international trade, it makes sense to have relatively few impediments to free movement. 

In multinational commerce, this means keeping tariffs low on imported products and allowing manufacturing plants to be located in nations where labor costs are low. The result is that we can buy a flat-screen TV made in China for a bargain price, with money left over in our pockets to make our lives better in other ways. But this also means there are no TV-manufacturing jobs for Americans and that we send a lot of corporate profits overseas.

In fisheries, being able to pursue migratory schools of tuna between U.S. and Canadian waters means that boats from neither nation will be shut out if there aren’t many albacore in one place or the other in a particular year. In a world where the climate and ocean currents are more changeable, this flexibility may be extremely handy five or 10 years from now, even if today it means U.S. fishermen lose some catch to Canadians.

The tuna fishery also bears more direct comparison to other forms of international commerce, in that money and labor can now flow with little constraint along the coast. Under the current arrangement, the fleet shops for supplies and repairs in ports from California to British Columbia, including Astoria. Locking out Canadian boats would perhaps mean more tuna for U.S. boats, at least for now, but fewer Canadian dollars for U.S. merchants. 

In general, processors probably don’t care what flag the boat is flying, so long as supplies are ample and predictable. But U.S. boats can make an argument for keeping the prices they are paid for tuna relatively higher by limiting foreign competition. 

Last year, 110 Canadian vessels fished in U.S. waters, the maximum allowable number, and 67 American vessels fished in the Canadian space. That is just one year’s imbalance, so more historical analysis is required, along with a detailed look at vessel sizes and catch-success records. 

On its face, however, it appears that a new treaty should at least try to equitably balance the total amount of tuna fishing by vessels of each nation. Simply allowing the treaty to end, keeping all Canadian boats out of U.S. water and vice versa, would be unwise.

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