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Russia: Salmon Migration Hurts Alaska Fishermen

Bellingham, Washington, 10 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Where have all the North Pacific salmon gone?

That is no small question -- at least, not to the people who make their living along the U.S. and Canadian Pacific Coast by catching and selling in world markets the usually bountiful and much-prized wild salmon.

The problem for today's global fisheries is that salmon don't respect national boundaries and range widely around the waters of the North Pacific -- including Bering Sea, which divides Russia and the United States. And yet, in order to renew the species, enough salmon must return each autumn to their native waters to spawn a new generation.

That return did not happen this year, says Dave Harsila, president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association. The reason it did not happen, he tells RFE/RL, is because the salmon from Alaska's Bristol Bay never made it back to spawn.

Instead, Harsila says, they were "intercepted" by Japanese and Russian fishers, who set their sprawling "drift-nets" in waters up to 370 kms off the southeastern Russian coast.

These waters are part of Russia's internationally recognized "economic enterprise zone" (or E-E-Z). To fish there, Japanese fishing interests pay Russia hefty fees, and the Japanese, Harsila says, are by far the largest catchers of the migrating, Alaskan-bound salmon. So Russia itself need not catch any of the fish in its E-E-Z -- though it does, -- in order to profit in these difficult economic times from the salmon fishery.

The problem for the Americans is that such fishing -- or overfishing, if it leads to depletion of salmon stocks -- is allowed within the southern portion of the Russian E-E-Z, under a 1992 fishing agreement between Russia and the United States.

That agreement limits salmon fishing in each country's E-E-Z to within only 45 kms of their shoreline. That narrow limit is intended to allow enough migratory Salmon to reach their native waters in order to spawn new generations of salmon and thus maintain the fishery.

But the 45 kms limit set forth in that agreement does not apply, the Americans point out, to Russia's E-E-Z, from Cape Olyutorskiy south along Kamchatka Peninsula to Japanese fishing areas. And the lack of returning fish in Alaska this year, they say, means that the agreement must be changed to limit salmon fishing within those Russian waters to the same 45 kms from shore that the Alaskan fishers already limit it off their own coast.

Dave Harsila says the Alaskan independent fishermen's group that he heads has asked Alaska and the U.S. government to persuade the Russians to apply the 45 kms limit within the southern portion of their E-E-Z -- and to do so immediately to avoid endangering the species' ability to renew itself and thus sustain the salmon fishery into the future.

Salmon migratory patterns are known to be influenced by changing oceanographic conditions. Harsila's group believes that such a change in the last year, probably provoked by the weather phenomenon known as El Nino, led many more Alaskan salmon to travel through Russian waters where they were caught in Russian, Japanese and even Chinese fishing nets far off their shores.

Harsila says the U.S. government now acknowledges the problem, but he is unsure that the diplomats understand the urgency for action, based on this new information regarding the migratory patterns of salmon.

Harsila says, "We don't have the time to wait 10 years to figure this out. We'll all be bankrupt."

In the case of Alaska-spawned salmon, the Alaskans say, the migratory range is far greater than was thought to be the case six years ago when the Russian-U.S. salmon pact was signed. That's why it must now be brought into conformity with this new knowledge. That would mean applying the same fishing limits within the southern section of the Russian E-E-Z as is already applied in the northern section and throughout Alaska's zone.

Avoiding a permanent collapse of the North Pacific salmon fishery, the Alaskans say, will serve the longer term interest of all participating countries. That's why, they say, international fishing regulations must be adjusted to the new facts relating to migratory patterns.