Fishing for solutions

Fishing for solutions THE bridge over troubled Atlantic waters that Canada and the European Union (EU) are trying to build may yet turn out to be little more than a shaky pontoon. The 2 belligerents finally came to an agreement on the pesky issue of Greenland halibut (turbot) catches off the Canadian coast. With the accord, signed and sealed on April 16, calm descended after over a month of trading charges of buccaneering on the high seas -- the drama came complete with gunboats, the sudden capture of a Spanish boat by self-appointed Canadian marine vigilantes, fishnets cut and a relentless flood of accusations.

"A trailblazing conservation agreement," enthused Jacques Roy, Canada's ambassador to the EU. "The rule of law has been restored on the high seas," said an elated Emma Bonino, EU fisheries commissioner.

The accord between Canada and the EU has been arrived at only after gruelling diplomatic negotiations. Canada has agreed to repeal a law that allowed it to seize a Spanish trawler in international waters on March 9, and to reimburse a bond of US $350,000 paid by the ship's owners. Canada and the EU have also agreed to accept quotas of 41 per cent each of the total catch of Greenland halibut.

The other major plank of the agreement is stricter monitoring to prevent overfishing and to restore depleted fish stocks. Both sides have agreed to carry inspectors aboard every fishing vessel in the north Atlantic and to install satellite monitoring devices on 35 per cent of the boats. "We have achieved a total enforcement regime," said Brian Tobin, Canadian fisheries minister.

The need for waterproof enforcement had been underscored dramatically just a day before the agreement, when Canada and Spain snarled warnings at each other. Even as Spain sent in 3 warships to protect its fishing boats, Canada rushed a destroyer to back up the patrol boats monitoring the fishing grounds in the hotly contested Grand Banks area off Newfoundland.

Tension between the 2 fishing adversaries had reached snapping point on March 9, when the Spanish trawler, Estai, was caught redhanded allegedly overfishing in international waters off Newfoundland (Down to Earth, April 15, 1995). A Canadian fisheries protection vessel promptly fired on the trawler, seized it and forced it to sail into St John's, Newfoundland.

Canada's version of the episode was that 80 per cent of the Greenland halibut found aboard the Estai were less than half the length of a mature fish; further, the large catch suggested that the mesh of its nets was half the usual size. But Spain was having none of it. "Organised piracy," huffed Emma Bonino.

The war of words continued even after Canada freed the trawler a week later. Canada directed its ire at the EU for accepting Spanish claims at face value. "We now know the person making foreign policy decisions on behalf of the European Union is some Spanish fishing captain floating around somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland," fumed Brian Tobin, Canadian fisheries minister, who has gained considerable mileage as a champion of vanishing fish stocks.

In Spain, not just words but eggs and rotten fish flew around as 3,000 demonstrators in Madrid marched on the Canadian embassy in early April to shout: "Yes to work, no to piracy."

Adding to the discord, Britain refused to toe the EU line on the bilateral row. In a provocative move in the first week of April, a Canadian patrol boat raced through thick fog to within 6 feet of the stern of the Spanish freezer ship, Jose Antonio Nores, snipping off its nets. The European Commission decried this action a "hostile, illegal and dangerous act". Britain, however, vetoed a declaration by the EU condemning this truculent act of "Canadian harassment".

Ottawa's response was fierce. It imposed a legislation on March 3 extending its maritime authority beyond the international 320 km limit. The legislation provided a convenient cover to Canada to seize the Estai and cut the nets of yet another fishing boat. The EU blew its top. "We won't give in an inch on these issues of principle," thundered Spanish foreign minister Javier Solana.

Another major barrier to a solution was disagreement on quotas. Although the 15-member North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) had fixed a total catch of 27,000 tonnes of turbot this year -- down from around 60,000 tonnes last year -- the EU refused to recognise a quota of 3,400 tonnes set for it on February 1. Efforts to hammer out an acceptable compromise were derailed by Spain's demand for a 50 per cent share for the EU.

Under the current agreement, Canada and the EU will each accept quotas of 41 percent of the total Greenland halibut catch of 27,000 tonnes. In a deft move that skirts the prickly issue of fish catches to date, the agreement allows EU boats to fish another 5,013 tonnes this year without revealing how much they have already caught. A major stumbling block in the past was Canada's hardline position that EU boats had already caught 10,000 tonnes, or 41 per cent, of the total catch. Explaining Canada's new position, Tobin explained: "Our objective was not to get a bigger slice of the pie. It was to ensure that there would be a pie, there would be a resource for the future."

The agreement still has to be ratified formally by member countries of the NAFO next month. An accord is more or less a certainty as Canada and the EU account for 90 per cent of the group's fishing.

However, uppermost on the minds of negotiators from both sides is the sobering thought that they have come back from the brink -- but only just. The international community, too, has been served a grim reminder that the chances of increased confrontations on the high seas will grow as rival fleets contend for dwindling fish catches. in fact, the future might already be here: experts feel that Canada's unusual display of muscle was an inevitable response to shrinking fish catches.

Canada had also been pushed to the brink by 50,000 disgruntled fishermen and fish plant workers rendered unemployed by a 3-year moratorium on cod fishing. "Canadians are very reluctant to engage in conflict," Robert Bothwell, professor of history at the University of Toronto, told the New York Times. "But this was seen by most of the country as a crucial issue. And the sabre-rattling certainly worked."

Could the accord serve as a model for saving endangered fish stocks around the world? In the relative calm after the squall, Canada and Spain seem to think so. "Our strong stand on conservation will contribute to the formulation of stringent international rules covering the harvesting of endangered fish stocks elsewhere in the world," maintained Canadian foreign minister Andre Ouellet.

The only discordant note in the happy wrap-up was struck by Spanish fishermen. The agreement was described as "profoundly unsatisfactory" by officials in the Galician fishing town of Vigo, Spain. More ominous still, a spokesperson of Vigo shipowners, Reinaldo Iglesias, said that 80 per cent of the 8,000 jobs generated by Galician open sea fishing would disappear because of the current Spain-Canada entente.

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