From Pig War to Fish War, Not Enough Progress

Something is fishy in the salmon dispute with Canada. Why would two friendly countries who do a billion dollars of business with each other each day wind up in a public relations confrontation like the blockading of the Alaska Ferry in Prince Rupert, BC? In political terms, who was supposed to be persuaded by British Columbia’s Premier Glen Clark calling US fishermen “pirates”?
Our federal government? Hardly. The American public? No, a recent official BC ad campaign in Seattle and Bellingham was plainly unsuccessful in that effort. Namecalling, if anything, only alienates opinion on this side of the border.

Therefore, if there was a purpose either to official or fishermen’s activism from BC it was to fan dying political embers right there, to inflame public opinion in BC in a way that would agitate the national government in Ottawa.

Let it be added that something similar undoubtedly was part of the motivation when Alaskan officials, in response to the ferry blockade, threatened to provide armed US Navy escorts for American fishing boats. What next? Will Washington and Alaska and the province of British Columbia mobilize their giant ferry fleets into opposing regional navies? Not since the great “Pig War” between the US and Britain has there been such false strutting about. Connoisseurs of historical trivia will recall that 138 years ago, in 1859, a boundary dispute between the US and British-ruled Canada erupted in a skirmish on San Juan Island, though the whole casualty list amounted to one farmer’s pig. Fortunately, the nations involved did frighten themselves as well as the local livestock, which led to a diplomatic settlement.

Diplomacy also is the necessary course today. Part of diplomacy’s wisdom is to recognize that the harsh give-and-take of domestic politics simply doesn’t translate well in international relations. Even normal official conversation has to be handled with care, while in a dispute the chance of matters getting out of hand is serious. Already, things have been said in the salmon dispute that could complicate broader bilateral relations in the region.

But the current flap also points up the lack of ready ways for the concerned states and province to collaborate more actively on such underlying needs as conservation, fish stock replenishment and pollution control. If the top elected leaders in the region could work out solutions together, rather than relying so much on international arbitration, more trouble might be prevented in the first place.

A Vancouver Sun columnist, Barbara Yaffe, citing the views of Dr. Alan Artibise of BC’s Cascadia Institute, has called for creation of a “Cascadia coordination commission” that would be “chaired by the BC premier and the governors of Washington State and Alaska.” It’s a sound and timely idea.

In fact, this idea was nearly implemented five years ago, although in a slightly different form. As then-Rep. John R. Miller of Seattle was preparing to retire from the US House in 1992, Congress approved his proposal to establish a Cascadia Corridor Commission to work on common cross-border problems and opportunities in the Northwest US and BC. The difference was that Oregon, rather than Alaska, was to be included.

Unfortunately, the US initiative–and its funding –disappeared after a negative reaction from BC. Whereas transborder cooperation enjoys bi-partisan support in Washington and Oregon, it runs into a streak of anti-American feeling in the left wing of British Columbia’s ruling New Democratic Party. Suspicions were especially strong because the Cascadia Commission proposal seemed to come from Washington, DC, and if there is one national government NDP folk distrust more than their own, it’s ours.

But therein could lie the basis of reviving the idea of the Cascadia Corridor Commission. All of us who share this distinctive swath of land and water along the north Pacific coast have in common not only issues of salmon fishing, but many others in the fields of environment, trade, agriculture, transportation, tourism, technology and even education and crime. If we deal with them together, they need not rise to the attention of our respective national governments.

We also have in common a traditional sense of separation from our respective national capitals. It’s not as serious here as in Canada; but it’s real. Traditionally, indeed, Washington, DC has been slower than Ottawa to acknowledge transborder problems and opportunities in our part of the continent. This federal myopia is as much cultural as political. For example, the ferry blockade earned front page attention in Seattle, Anchorage and Vancouver, but was not prominently covered in the Eastern-dominated US media. Overall, we can’t expect people back East in either country to take our issues as seriously as we do.

No concession of national sovereignty on either side is sought or wanted by advocates of a Cascadia Comission. Nor is it anyone’s thought to disavow international treaty mechanisms. What is wanted is an executive mechanism for regional cooperation across the border, and from that relationship, the greater empowerment of our BC friends within their own nation, and us in ours.

In the past half dozen years efforts at regional cooperation in Cascadia actually have developed well. But an executive level association for the states and province–with real authority and federal recognition–as Artibise and Miller originally imagined it, are notably absent. In that sense, we have not made much progress between the Pig War and the Fish War.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.