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Russia: U.S. Seeks Clarification Of Fishing Rights

Bellingham, Washington; 16 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Fish do not respect national boundaries. For that reason, the international migratory habits of fish have the United States at odds with Russia over specific fishing rights.

The issue involves preservation of pollock, a species of commercial fish harvested by the two countries, among others, in the Bering Sea and North Pacific, which front on both countries' national boundaries.

Negotiations over just how many pollock each side should take have been stalled over failure to settle a disputed boundary dividing fishing grounds between the two countries.

According to the U.S. State Department, Russia two months ago canceled scheduled talks seeking to agree upon a boundary and set fishing quotas. Nothing has happened since. The United States accuses Russian fishing interests in the Far East of over fishing the species and seeking to take additional fish in the disputed area that previously would have gone to American fishers.

The dispute arises because pollock breed in the waters of Alaska but then, some of them, head west into the disputed area and, further west, into Russian waters.

On the American side, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who represents that farthest northwest state's fishing interests, is the leading proponent of dividing the harvest to avoid overfishing of Pollock to the detriment of fishers on both sides. The idea is to avoid taking all the fish that could be caught today in order to preserve adequate stocks of the fishery for tomorrow.

An agreement on fishing quotas for Russian and U.S. fishers, tied to an agreed-upon boundary line, was ratified by the U.S. Congress in 1991. But in February, the Russian Duma apparently failed to ratify the demarcation line, creating the present state of tension between fishing interests on the two sides.

Muddying the fishing waters is the fact that the dispute reaches back into the Soviet era, according to Vyacheslav Zilanov, Russia's deputy chairman of the state committee of fishing. Since 1981, Zilanov recently told the American trade journal "Fisherman's News," the United States ended the allocation of fishing quotas "in response to our involvement in the Afghan war."

But that was then and now is now. And Senator Stevens says today's problem appears to stem from a lack of understanding by the Duma and fishers in the Russian Far East. As a result of the impasse, however, over-fishing is continuing of the existing pollock stocks in the Bering Sea area that stands between Russia and the U.S. state of Alaska.

Stevens told "Fisherman's News" that "we will guarantee the Russians some of the fish that are harvested from the high seas that are on our side of the (disputed) line if they will just approve a basic line of demarcation." Stevens says "the Duma has not been willing to do that because they are convinced by some of the Russian Far East fishers that, somehow or other, we have given away their rights."

Senator Stevens says this is not the case. He says high-seas fishing rights will remain the same no matter where the line is drawn. He adds that "we have rights no matter where the line is."

In Stevens' view, the key to resolving the dispute lies in developing a co-management agreement between Russian fishers, the Russian government and the United States that sets pollock fishing quotas.

But the underlying problem appears to revolve around differences created by the collapse of Soviet rule and establishment of Russia's independence since then, along with lingering suspicions carried over from the Cold War era.

For example, because Russian fishers have lacked the capital and knowledge needed to compete in the post-Cold War world, some American boats have signed on with Russian fishing interests and are helping the Russians, if that is the case, overfish current pollock stocks.

This internationalization of the Russian pollock catch creates a challenging new wrinkle in current efforts to smooth fishing relations between the United States and Russia.