ECUADOR: The Tuna War Continues

  • Share
  • Read Later

The yellowfin tuna are running good this year in the broad waters of the Humboldt Current off the coast of Ecuador, one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Once again, as they have for more than a decade, U.S. fishermen and the Ecuadorian navy are squaring away for their annual squabble at sea.

Last week two U.S. tunaboats, the Western King and the Anne Maria, the first captured by Ecuadorian patrol boats this year, were forced to pay a total of $151,510 in fines. With a 50-boat flotilla headed down from San Diego and the prospect of yet another showdown, the State Department last week sent a diplomatic flotilla of its own, headed by Charles Meyer, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, to Quito to try to reach some kind of settlement.

The dispute dates from 1952, when Ecuador, Chile and Peru signed the Declaration of Santiago, which reserved fishing privileges within a 200-mile offshore limit for their own citizens and for properly licensed foreign vessels. In the case of Ecuador, the license fee averages around $10,000 per boat, a reasonable enough sum since a single catch can be worth $225,000. But most nations, including the U.S. and the Soviet Union, observe a twelve-mile limit. They fear that the Santiago Declaration will set a precedent severely inhibiting free access to large sections of the seas. Already, half a dozen other Latin nations have announced a 200-mile limit, and Iceland recently proposed extending its fishing rights to 50 miles.

Washington has refused to let American fishermen buy Ecuadorian licenses (as Japanese fishermen do, for example) on the grounds that it would tacitly acknowledge the legitimacy of the 200-mile claim. At the same time, the U.S. Treasury has picked up the tab for the fines. Every year, however, the ante has been going up: last year 51 U.S. boats were captured, and the fines amounted to $2.5 million.

Frozen Aid. In retaliation, the Administration has cut off military sales and credits to Ecuador. That action led Ecuador to protest to the Organization of American States that the U.S. was employing illegal sanctions. In recent weeks, the San Diego based American Tunaboat Association, which does $20 million worth of fishing in Ecuadorian waters, has been badgering the White House in San Clemente and Washington to do something to protect American fishermen. At week's end, Meyer and President José Velasco Ibarra still had not reached an agreement, but the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry said the talks would continue. The U.S. is reportedly inclined to allow American fishermen to buy licenses "under protest," pending an international agreement on territorial waters at next year's U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea.