Fish War Ends | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Fish War Ends

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 24, 1995. Partner content is not updated.

Even for a fish tale, the story had started to strain the bounds of credulity. Victory is at hand, federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin repeated like a mantra last week.

Fish War Ends

Even for a fish tale, the story had started to strain the bounds of credulity. Victory is at hand, federal Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin repeated like a mantra last week. Yet as the Easter weekend and Passover approached, the uneasy truce in the great turbot tussle between Canada and Spain just seemed to drag on. After the Spaniards failed to agree to a midweek deadline set by Tobin for a turbot deal between Canada and the 15-member European Union (EU), the normally fiery fisheries minister responded in a conciliatory fashion. Canada, he said, did not want to do anything to jeopardize ongoing negotiations in Brussels when a settlement seemed so near. But by Good Friday, Tobin's patience had clearly run out. Declaring that Spanish recalcitrance had jettisoned Canada's "generous and final offer" on turbot quotas, Tobin indicated that Canadian patrol boats could soon move again against 17 Spanish boats still fishing on the so-called nose and tail of the Grand Banks. Whether it was Tobin's tough talk - or more Canadian concessions at the bargaining table in Brussels - the Spaniards finally came aboard. On Saturday night, a relieved Tobin held his second news conference in less than 24 hours to announce that Canada and the European Union had reached an agreement. "We're not declaring a victory," Tobin said. "We're declaring a first step in instilling in our waters and around the world an effective enforcement regime."

Under the terms of the deal - endorsed by EU ambassadors on Sunday - Canada will give up some of its quota for turbot to Spain, Tobin said. But it will also protect "fragile" turbot stocks off the coast of Newfoundland. "Our objective was not to get a bigger slice of the pie," he told reporters in Ottawa. "Our objective was to make sure there was a pie in the future." The deal ends a month of tense negotiations that followed the dramatic events of March 9, when Canadian fisheries patrol boats fired warning shots across the bow of the Spanish trawler Estai and arrested the ship and its crew.

Accused by EU officials of engaging in "piracy," Tobin responded that Canada was simply acting to protect endangered turbot stocks in waters just outside its 200-mile territorial limit. At the bargaining table, the thorniest issue proved to be the allocation of turbot quotas between Canada and the European nations. According to Tobin, EU officials had initially accepted Canada's latest offer, only to return Friday with new demands. "The Canadian government is profoundly disappointed," Tobin said. "When we make commitments, we keep them, and we expect others to do the same."

While Tobin laid the blame for the breakdown of the talks squarely at Spain's door, Spanish Fisheries Minister Luis Atienza begged to differ. "We're now used to the fact that each time the talks get to a delicate spot, Tobin makes things more difficult with threats and ultimatums," Atienza said in a written statement released in Madrid. "It has to be made clear that from Spain's point of view and that of the European Union, the talks haven't broken down, they have just recessed."

The stalemate threatened to scuttle the kind of deal that Canadian fishermen said was essential if the Atlantic fishery is to survive. For years, those same fishermen have been deeply critical of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), the Halifax-based body that regulates fishing in the region, claiming that the agency lacked the clout to enforce its rules and punish violators. Central to the deal that had been taking shape were the sort of tough new surveillance and enforcement measures - including on-board inspection of trawlers and satellite monitoring of foreign fishing fleets - that Canada had been seeking from the start. "This represents significant progress," Earle McCurdy, head of the Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers union, which represents most of Newfoundland's inshore fishermen, told Maclean's shortly before the talks broke down. "From the beginning, this was about more than turbot."

In Brussels, European diplomats said negotiations foundered over relatively small differences in how to share the total catch of 27,000 tonnes of turbot that NAFO set for 1995. When the two sides finally reached a deal, they agreed that Canada will take 10,000 of those tonnes, down from the 16,200 originally allocated. The EU will get 10,000 tonnes of turbot, while the remaining 7,000 tonnes will go to other countries, including Russia and Japan.

Throughout the turbot dispute, Canada was widely hailed as a hero for taking bold action against the Iberians. Last week, hundreds of British fishermen continued to fly the Maple Leaf to protest Spanish overfishing in their own waters. Royce Frith, Canada's high commissioner to Britain, was surrounded by happy schoolchildren waving Canadian flags when he visited the Cornish town of Newlyn. Meanwhile, Ireland seized two Spanish-owned trawlers off its coast for suspicion of exceeding quotas, the fifth and sixth such incidents since April 4. And South Africa detained 18 Spanish fishermen for allegedly using an illegal net in its waters.

In Canada, the fish war touched off a wave of nationalistic sentiment - and, in Newfoundland, it triggered outright anger. Watching Spanish boats indiscriminately netting turbot off their coast was simply too much for Newfoundland fishermen to accept after being forced to pull out their own nets because of dwindling catches. "Time has run out," a frustrated Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells declared in the heat of last week. "If the European Union is not prepared to compel the Spanish to fish in accordance with NAFO rules, then Canada is totally justified in taking whatever action is necessary." In the end, Canada cut a deal - and hoped that it would last.

Maclean's April 24, 1995