Canadians block U.S. ferry in fight over salmon stocks

Published July 22, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Nearly 150 ferry passengers, most of them American tourists, were effectively held hostage Monday in an intensifying protest by Canadian fishermen waging a "salmon war" against the United States.

The fishermen, blockading the Alaskan ferry Malaspina in a remote British Columbian port, burned a U.S. flag and refused to obey a court order to cease their three-day-old action.

The 328 passengers initially on the ferry _ more than half of whom have left for other means of transportation _ became entangled in the dispute on Saturday, when a fleet of Canadian fishing boats surrounded the Malaspina at dock.

Even as more boats arrived from ports along the British Columbia coast to join the protest, officials in Ottawa and Washington traded warnings and accusations. Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol boats, meanwhile, converged on Prince Rupert, 500 miles north of Vancouver.

The fishermen roped their boats hull-to-hull and vowed not to back down, accusing Canadian officials of cowardice in negotiating a new salmon fishing agreement with the United States.

"The Americans are raping the sea while Ottawa just stands by, doing nothing," said fisherman Carl Pearce in a phone interview from the protest flotilla. "So we're taking this ferryboat hostage."

Canadian fishermen aboard more than 150 small trawlers and other craft continued the blockade in defiance of a Canadian federal court injunction issued Sunday ordering them to permit the Malaspina to continue to Ketchikan, Alaska.

About 142 passengers remained on board, most of them Americans.

"This is a full-scale fish war," said British Columbia Premier Glen Clark. "We have to stand up to the United States."

Two years of talks between Washington and Ottawa broke down last month with no formal agreement on how best to manage salmon stocks, a shared resource worth roughly $300-million to the economies of Alaska and British Columbia.

Canadians were furious to discover that Alaskan fishermen this month harvested 350,000 sockeye salmon bound for spawning waters in British Columbia. That is roughly three times the average annual harvest of sockeyes by the Alaskan fleet.

The harvest of Pacific salmon has long been a contentious issue between the two neighbors. Salmon born in the rivers of British Columbia swim far into the Pacific in their adulthood. When they return home to spawn, however, they pass through Alaskan waters _ and are captured in huge numbers by American boats.

The blockade disrupted thousands of travelers on Alaska's southeast coast, where ferries serve as the only link to the outside for many communities.