05/20/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 07/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Tuna Treaty: Canada, U.S. Fishing Dispute Heats Up Ahead Of Talks

VANCOUVER - The Canadian government has raised the ire of American tuna fishermen by cutting off their Canadian port privileges just as exploratory talks are set to start over the lucrative Canada-U.S. albacore fishery.

Hope is fading that the 31-year-old treaty allowing Canadians and Americans to fish across borders can be resurrected for this season's fishery.

The Canadian albacore fishery is valued at about $30 million a year.

Wayne Heikkila, the executive director of the Western Fishboat Owners Association based in Redding Calif., said a one-year suspension of the treaty would actually be helpful to allow his group to gather data and assess fleets and economic benefits.

Heikkila said the treaty no longer seems reciprocal.

"It was a fine thing for about 25 years, then the Canadian fleet dramatically expanded," he said. "And most of the effort does not go into Canadian waters from U.S. boats. It comes into U.S. waters from Canadian boats."

Ian Bryce, a board member on the B.C. Tuna Fishermen's Association, agreed there is little likelihood that Canadians will be fishing in American waters this season.

"At this point, they're not interested in renegotiating the annexes to the treaty under which we fish."

Both men said they believed the dispute wouldn't drag on long and there would be some kind of arrangement by 2013.

That's why Heikkila is so puzzled about the Canadian government's move to refuse access for American albacore fish boats in Canadian waters or ports.

American tuna vessels needing to off-load tuna or exchange crew must submit an application for a licence, said a Fisheries and Oceans Canada notice issued earlier this month.

"Any U.S. albacore tuna fishing vessel entering Canadian fisheries waters in contravention of Canada's Coastal Fisheries Protection Act will be subject to legal action," the notice declares.

For Canadian fishermen, the lack of a treaty means American ports remain open to their boats, but they can't sell their fish in the U.S., Heikkila said.

He said the port restrictions just take them backwards in the dispute.

"It's just one of those things that we shake our head. Why do they put that out? I don't think it's going to accomplish much, but just raise the ire of more people. That's what it's done."

But Bryce said the port access provisions for U.S. tuna vessels were allowed under the treaty and with the treaty no longer in place, it only makes sense that Canada would revert back to the same rules it has for any other foreign vessel.

Bryce and Heikkila also agree that government negotiators on both sides should have pushed negotiations almost two years ago when it appeared there was friction.

"Now we're down to the last minute. We don't want to force something through that would just be making something worse," Heikkila said.

An update memo about the treaty from the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation, a not-for-profit group that promotes research and industry development projects, said the U.S. government and industry perceived the Canadian fleet had increased its catch in U.S. waters, wasn't contributing enough to albacore science and that the Canadian fleet's behaviour was aggressive while on the grounds.

"(The) U.S. government delivered the message that the formal position of the U.S. government was 'no fishing in 2012." the update memo said.

Heikkila said there have been times when the tuna gather in a narrow band down the U.S. coast and that's when they get really aggressive behaviour from some fishermen.

"So when it gets really crowded, who gets pointed at first?" he asked. "The outsider."

Bryce said the Americans should have complained a lot sooner.

"We're a little bit flummoxed and don't understand."

Bryce said there is a faction within the U.S. fishing industry that would prefer the treaty not be renewed.

"But there are a hefty percentage of (U.S.) fishermen who enjoy the privilege of fishing in Canadian waters because the fish do migrate up this way and there are a number of them who come up every summer to fish in Canadian water."

For that reason, Bryce said he was holding out some hope for what's being called "exploratory" talks May 23 and 24 in Portland, Ore. involving Canadian and U.S. government officials.

"I'm a fishermen, I'm an optimist, I'm hoping that maybe there is some opportunity to talk terms," he said.

Bryce and Heikkila will be representing their industries at the two-day session.

Neither the Canadian nor U.S. governments returned requests for interviews.