306. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1 2

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  • Fishery Dispute with Ecuador

Our recent difficulties with Ecuador over fisheries highlight the importance of reaching a satisfactory settlement of this problem as soon as possible. During the past few weeks 17 U.S. tuna boats were seized by Ecuador, and we suspended military sales to Ecuador. As a result:

The issue was taken up in an OAS Foreign Ministers Meeting over our objections. Although we successfully maneuvered for a resolution which did not condemn us, but simply called for restraint on both sides and the resumption of negotiations, the OAS is still seized of the problem and could deal with it in a less satisfactory manner if further incidents occur.

—Ecuador has announced that it will not enter any negotiations until we lift the suspension of military sales.

—The Ecuadorean Government has demanded the withdrawal of our Military Group there, claiming that the Mil Group has no function to perform in the absence of the military sales program.

The fundamental problem stems from a difference in juridical positions on the extent of territorial seas. Ecuador, and 8 other Latin American nations (including Brazil and Argentina), claim a 200 mile territorial sea jurisdiction. We recognize a fisheries zone of no more than 12 miles. Attempts by Ecuador and Peru to enforce their 200-mile claim have led the Congress to impose a series of sanctions (suspension of military sales, deduction from economic aid, recall of ships on loan) which come into play when U.S. vessels are seized beyond 12 miles. These sanctions are viewed by the Latins as economic coercion, and they produce intense nationalistic reactions against us.

Two basic U.S. interests must be balanced if this dispute is to be settled:

1. Our interest in maintaining a narrow law-of-the-sea position: The proliferation of unilateral extensions of offshore jurisdiction jeopardizes [Page 2] our substantial national security interests in narrow territorial sea boundaries and rights of free navigation in areas off foreign shores. Worldwide acceptance of a 200-mile boundary would restrict our navigational mobility in a number of key areas, and could reduce the effectiveness of our nuclear submarines. We have sought to discourage further unilateral extensions of claims by promoting a Law-of-the-Sea Conference in 1973 to try to resolve this issue on a multilateral basis.

2. Our interests in avoiding political isolation in the Hemisphere. A continuing escalation of the fisheries dispute will not only damage our relations with the coastal states involved, but can only serve to unify the Latin American nations against us on this nationalistic issue. If Ecuador continues to seize vessels, Peru, and eventually other nations such as Brazil, will feel compelled to demonstrate that they are just as fervent in defending their “national rights” as Ecuador, and we can expect more seizures. This in turn is likely to generate greater pressures from the domestic interests and Congress to impose further sanctions, which will set off more nationalistic responses and retaliation against our other interests in the region, and could lead to the eventual possibility of armed clashes.

The only feasible solution to this difficult problem is a negotiated practical settlement which does not prejudice the juridical position of either side. We have been working toward such a settlement in a Fisheries Conference with Ecuador, Peru and Chile since August 1969. Our efforts have been directed toward an agreement which would end the seizures by establishing a four-nation conservation region for tuna resources in the South Pacific and open the way to increased cooperation in research, fisheries development, and trade. The basic idea is to develop a disguised way for our fishermen to buy licenses without recognizing the 200-mile claim, give the coastal states more economic benefits, and leave the juridical problem to be dealt with in the Law-of-the-Sea Conference. Although agreement had not been reached, some progress had been made and another session was scheduled to be held before July, 1971. However, it now seems necessary to find some face-saving way to get Ecuador back to the negotiating table. This may require waiving the suspension of military sales or possibly sending a special emissary to talk to President Velasco.

In the memorandum at Tab A, Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard suggests that any proposed solution to the current problem with Ecuador should be taken to the Under Secretaries Committee to assure that national security interests are not undermined. I do not think an Under Secretaries Committee review is necessary at this time. Our basic position for the negotiations is not in dispute. What is needed is an imaginative strategy by the State Department to get the [Page 3] negotiations on the track again soon. To elicit this, I suggest that you authorize me to indicate to State and Defense that you:

  • —want vigorous efforts to be undertaken to negotiate a practical early settlement of the fisheries dispute which reserves our juridical positions on the extent of the territorial seas; and
  • —have asked for a report within ten days outlining our negotiating strategy and including appropriate recommendations for actions requiring your decision.

This should stimulate action. If it appears that revision of our current position may be necessary to reach a settlement, we can then consider our options in the Under Secretaries Committee.


That you approve the approach suggested above.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 784, Country Files, Latin America, Ecuador, Vol. 1, 1969–1970. Secret. Sent for action. Haig approved for the President on February 10. Attached but not published at Tab A is a January 28 memorandum from Packard to Nixon. Kissinger’s tasking of the Secretaries of Defense and State to produce a negotiating strategy, dated February 10, is in Foreign Relations 1969–1976, vol. E–1, Documents on Global Issues, 1969–1972, Document 387. In telegram 637 from Quito, February 9, Burns told Meyer it was important to resolve the fishing dispute to protect U.S. oil interests in Ecuador and to strengthen the position in the OAS and the Law of the Sea negotiations. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 33–4, ECUADOR–US).
  2. Kissinger urged President Nixon to come up with a practical, early settlement of the fisheries dispute. Kissinger also requested that Nixon elicit a report outlining U.S. negotiating strategy from the Secretaries of State and Defense.