Tuna treaty sandwiched with pros, cons

Loyola Sullivan, the Canadian Ambassador for fisheries conservation, addresses a group of a dozen locals at the Port of Astoria to discuss the renewel of a treaty that would allow Canadian fishing boats to land Pacific Albacore in Ilwaco and Astoria.

ASTORIA — Tuna was the topic last Wednesday when the Canadian ambassador for Fisheries Conservation came to visit Astoria. 

Pacific albacore, to be specific. 

The U.S. and Canada have had an agreement since 1981 allowing a certain number of boats to fish in either country’s oceans, following the highly migratory fish wherever they choose to go. The boats can then land the fish in a dozen designated ports. The Ilwaco-Astoria area is one of them. 

But that treaty, most recently renewed for a three-year term, expires at the end of the 2011 season. Ambassador Loyola Sullivan, a former fisherman, discussed the importance of a new treaty with about a dozen locals — many of whom participate in the fishery or support those who do. 

“Canada supports a renewal of the treaty. We see many benefits,” Sullivan said. The arrangement supports economic health in both countries — as foreign vessels come into port to sell their fish to local processors, they fuel up, fix mechanical problems and enjoy local activities, Sullivan explained to the group of processors, port and county commissioners and local city leaders. 

Some fishing groups oppose the treaty’s renewal, however. 

Natalie Webster is executive director of the San Diego-based American Albacore Fishing Association, a group that represents commercial fisherman that participate in the West Coast troll and pole and line albacore fishery. Webster said she can understand why quite a few of the association’s 70 members would rather each country’s fleet fish its own waters. The group has several Washington and Oregon members.

“I sympathize with their position because it’s our economic zone and U.S. vessels should have every access to that fishery. They shouldn’t feel limited and they shouldn’t feel in competition with a foreign fleet,” Webster said.

The majority are looking to see the treaty terminated or see the number of vessels granted access greatly reduced, she said.

Talks between the two countries will start in April, and will consider the treaty’s term and how many boats from each country could participate. Last year, 110 Canadian vessels fished in U.S. waters, the maximum allowable number, and 67 American vessels fished in the Canadian space. The previous contract spanned five years and had a fallback provision which would allow fishing to continue without an agreement in place. The current treaty does not have such a provision.

Keeping the treaty in place invests in long-term stability for both countries, as the fish migrate back and forth in unpredictable patterns, Sullivan said. In the last decade, the fish have spent more time in U.S. waters. The season begins in mid-June and ends in mid-October.

“It has allowed fishermen to pursue their livelihoods regardless of where the fish are going,” Sullivan said.

Warrenton Mayor Mark Kujala attended the meeting and said leaders need to do what’s right for the region. 

“There are some real advantages to having this treaty with Canada, though others may feel differently,” Kujala said. He owns and operates a small processing company that purchases a small amount of tuna from a handful of local boats.

Some fishermen may be concerned about Canadian boats flooding the local markets and bringing prices down, Kujala said.

“We have to think about how difficult it is to be a tuna fisherman,” he added. 

Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen also attended, and said he doesn’t think competition is a big concern.

“It’s fair for both countries,” Van Dusen said. The money Canadian fishermen spend here on provisions and equipment is a valuable benefit to the local economy, he added.

“With times the way they are we need all the business we can get,” Van Dusen said.

In a 2008 economic study funded by Canadian industry, the federal government and the Province of British Columbia, Canadian vessels spend between $700,000 and $800,000 in the six U.S. ports annually. The study also tracked the benefits of U.S. processors having access to Canadian-caught tuna and found an increase worth approximately $1 million annually.

Together, Astoria, Westport and Newport currently accept about two-thirds of the tuna landed in the six U.S. ports, with Astoria at the top, Sullivan said.

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