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Gunboat diplomacy: Canada fires the first shots in what may become an all-out fish war with Europe

Canada seized a Spanish fishing trawler, the Estai, in Mar 1995, on the grounds that the vessel was severely depleting the turbot population off the coast of Newfoundland. The Estai was outside Canada’s 200-mile limit at the time of the seizure. The European Union (EU) protested the move.
It is a slime-bodied bottom-feeder–a putrid-colored fish with ugly, raised eyes that Canadian supermarkets can hardly give away. Not the sort of prize, then, that would normally be expected to bring two nations to the verge of open warfare on the high seas. But last week, as the long-simmering turbot fishing dispute between Canada and Spain boiled over into a dramatic chase across a fog-shrouded ocean, a burst of machine-gun fire and the seizure of a Spanish fishing vessel, it became obvious that these are not ordinary times. Ottawa, after all, had finally heeded demands from Atlantic Canadian fishermen and politicians to stand tall and end foreign overfishing in the waters off Newfoundland. The week may have ended in a diplomatic stalemate with Spanish trawlers threatening to resume catching turbot on the lip of Canada’s 200-nautical-mile fishing zone and Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin promising more boat seizures if they did. But his swift show of strength, at least for the moment, burnished the prestige of a minister whose department is sorely in need of any sort of high-profile victory.

In a way, Tobin’s bold response actually carried little political risk. Foreign Affairs diplomats in Ottawa may have looked with horror on his attempts at gunboat diplomacy. But in his home province of Newfoundland, where 40,000 fishery workers have been put out of work by moratoriums to save depleted cod and flounder stocks, he won universal praise for a tough stance against foreigners who they say have been pillaging fish in Canada’s backyard for the past five years. Predictably, the 15-country European Union (EU), of which Spain is a member, accused Canada of “piracy” and flouting international law by interfering with fishing fleets outside Canada’s 200-mile limit. And in truth, experts say that Ottawa has clearly stepped into uncharted legal waters with its decisive step. But, for the time being at least, Ottawa did not seem too concerned about legal niceties. “It’s not the mark of a pirate,” declared Tobin, “to reach out in desperation to save the last fish stock. It’s the mark of a patriot.”

In fact, at week’s end, as the seized Spanish ship Estai and its crew were being escorted to St. John’s by Fisheries and Canadian Coast Guard vessels, Ottawa was determined to stick to its guns–and, it appeared, to some effect. According to Tobin, 14 other Spanish vessels and a dozen Portuguese trawlers had withdrawn well beyond the turbot grounds on the Grand Banks. He threatened further arrests if the European vessels resume fishing in a zone just beyond Canada’s 200-mile limit in parts of the Grand Banks known as the nose and the tail. He also warned that Canada was only prepared to resume seeking a negotiated settlement with the EU as long as its member nations agreed to honor a 60-day moratorium on fishing turbot in the disputed waters.

The Europeans have watched Canada draw a line in the sand before. Much of the blame for the ravaging of cod and other North Atlantic fish stocks during the late 1980s and 1990s has fallen on foreign fleets–even though domestic overfishing and environmental changes are almost certainly bigger factors. Everyone from Canadian diplomats to frustrated East Coast fishermen have tried to persuade Madrid, Lisbon and the United Nations to limit foreign fishing on the Grand Banks, for centuries the world’s greatest fishing grounds.

Always, though, the Europeans refused to listen. Enter Tobin, the self-styled “avenging angel of conservation,” who seems determined to rewrite Canada’s reputation for passivity when it comes to international threats to its own fishermen–and to reverse his own department’s abysmal record of failing to order quota cuts for cod and other fish species until stocks had fallen to dangerously low levels.

Tobin had shown in the past that he was ready to back up his tough words with action. Last June, he slapped a $1,500 fee on U.S. salmon fishermen navigating the coastal waters off British Columbia–a move that helped convince the Americans to resume negotiations on a new Pacific salmon treaty. Then, in August, Tobin ordered the seizure of two U.S. scalloping ships fishing in Canadian waters. In the process, he forced the American government to concede Canadian jurisdiction over Icelandic scallops on the continental shelf off Nova Scotia.

His latest target: Spanish factory trawler freezers catching turbot on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. Canada, actually, is not the first country to tackle Spain’s fleet, which has a long-established reputation for ignoring international regulations and ravaging other country’s fishing grounds. When the southwest African country of Namibia won independence in 1990, one of its first moves was to declare a 200-mile coastal limit and kick out the Spanish boats depleting the fish stocks off its coast.

Unfortunately, those same boats set sail for the area known as the nose and tail of the Grand Banks. Since the bulk of the Spanish fleet arrived in 1991, its turbot catches have averaged roughly 50,000 tons a year. Newfoundland fishermen, by comparison, hauled in just 3,000 tons last year, which raised fears about the future of one of the last remaining East Coast fisheries that has not been closed because of depleted stocks.

Ottawa thought it had resolved the problem when the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) set a 1995 quota of 3,400 tons for EU boats, compared with 16,300 tons for Canada. Trouble is, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen feel they are entitled to far more. Their governments, through the EU, have challenged the NAFO quota. In the meantime, the dozens of EU boats operating off Newfoundland have been busy and, by Canada’s reckoning, caught 7,000 tons of turbot in the first two weeks of 1995.

Ottawa called for a 60-day moratorium on turbot fishing while Canada and the EU thrashed out the quota question. After EU officials ignored that request, Tobin decided it was time for some sabre rattling. “Any government worth its salt must act to prevent the disappearance of another stock from the planet Earth,” he declared during a news conference on March 6 in which he announced that Canada intended to seize what he called “pirate” ships fishing turbot off the east coast.

The tension mounted: the EU threatened to send over warships to protect its interests, and rumors circulated through the media that the Canadian warship Terra Nova had been dispatched to enforce the NAFO quotas. Prime Minister Jean Chretien tried to defuse the situation through diplomatic channels, by telephone conversations with several European leaders. But talks failed when he refused to continue negotiations with European Union president Jacques Santer until the 50-or-so Spanish and Portuguese ships fishing in the disputed area had pulled in their nets and gone home. “You don’t negotiate with a knife to your throat,” a senior official in Chretien’s office told Maclean’s. “You don’t do it while they are fishing out the stock.”

So Ottawa decided to up the ante. Last Thursday, a department of fisheries and oceans patrol vessel carrying a team of RCMP and fisheries officers cut through the icy water towards the Spanish vessel Estai. When the first boarding attempt failed, the Spanish crew cut their nets and fled. For four hours, the two vessels played hide-and-seek in the banks of thick North Atlantic fog. The chase ended when the Canadian ship fired a burst of machine-gun fire across the Estai’s bow. Then, the seized boat was turned towards St. John’s, where the skipper faces charges under Canadian fisheries conservation laws and the crew will likely be flown home.

The Europeans appeared to be caught off-guard by Canada’s sudden burst of belligerence. In an emergency meeting, deputy EU ambassadors called the arrest of the Estai “a lawless act against the sovereignty of a member state of the European Union.” Spain dispatched a naval vessel ship to the area off Newfoundland to protect its fishing fleet. EU research ministers immediately cancelled plans to sign a previously negotiated scientific co-operation pact with Canada. And EU ambassadors told the European Commission–the EU’s executive body–to draw up a list of potential retaliatory measures against Canadian exports. “The list excludes nothing,” said EU spokesman Joao Valede Almeida.

How far Tobin and Canada are willing to push the issue remains uncertain. For now, at least, the fisheries minister is talking tough. He says he has stood his ground in the face of threats before–particularly by the United States, which howled with outrage when he took strong steps against their fishermen. “The government has fully considered the consequences and the reaction to the kind of measures we’ve taken,” Tobin told Maclean’s. “There is no surprise here on our part.” Chretien also expressed firm resolve. Noting that he personally approved the procedures to stop the Estai–including firing across the ship’s bow–Chretien told a provincial Liberal convention in Winnipeg that “we’ve done it for conservation purposes and we’re clear. Of course, if you do nothing, nothing will happen and all the species will disappear.”

In the past, however, Canada has been anything but vigilant in protecting its own fishing stocks. Long before Tobin’s Conservative predecessor, John Crosbie, announced a two-year moratorium on northern cod fishing in 1992, Atlantic fishermen were complaining of fewer and smaller fish. And just last week, a report issued by another former fisheries minister, John Fraser, accused the department of fisheries and oceans of bureaucratic ineptitude and failure to live up to its constitutional responsibilities to protect the $450-million-a-year West Coast salmon fishery–a failing for which Tobin himself publicly took full responsibility.

In fact, confident as Tobin sounded last week while doing battle with the Europeans, Canada is clearly breaking new legal ground by trying to take control of fishing grounds beyond its 200-mile limit. Technically, under international law, questions of conservation involving fish stocks beyond the 200-mile zone are the jurisdiction of the home country of the fleets involved, in this case Spain, Portugal and the other EU nations.

But many experts say that if this dispute went to court it would be complicated by a provision in the United Nations law dealing with fish stocks like the lowly turbot, which span the boundaries of more than one fishing zone. In such cases, disputes are supposed to be worked out through negotiations between the countries involved or under the direction of regional organizations such as NAFO. The trouble is that the convention’s provisions say nothing about what happens when both options fail, as they clearly have in the East Coast turbot dispute. “This case,” says David VanderZwaag, director of the marine and environmental law program at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, “seems to fall between the cracks of international law.”

At week’s end, the situation was volatile. The unpopularity of the Spanish fishing fleet within the EU may mean that there are strict limits to how far other European countries are willing to go in a dispute with Canada. At the same time, if the tense standoff continues for long–or if the EU acts on some of its threats–public support could wane within Canada. John Cummins, the Reform party’s federal fisheries critic thinks Canada’s best bet would be to “eat some crow” and ask for some sort of independent arbitrator to settle the dispute. But last week, at least, Tobin showed little inclination to heed such advice.


From political novice to opposition firebrand to minister of the Crown, Brian Tobin has never stood accused of being timid and shy. The Newfoundland MP and fisheries minister who has led Canada to the brink of a fish war with the European Union has been criticized as brash, slick–even offensive at times–but in the 15 years he has been on Parliament Hill, Tobin has made a mark for himself that tells of both his ambition and his ability.

To those who watched him last week explain with pointer and charts how he was going to get tough with the Spanish fishing fleet, and subsequently explain exactly how he did get tough with the Spanish fishing fleet, his most obvious skill is his ability to make a point. “The Spanish fleet is not particularly beloved anywhere it operates,” he noted, while accusing fleet owners–but pointedly not the fishermen–of ravaging fish stocks wherever they roam. Back home in the riding of Humber/St. Barbe/Baie Verte, on Newfoundland’s west coast, it’s called the gift of the gab, a skill well-nourished by the island’s long oral tradition. He is, say senior Liberals, one of the best communicators in Jean Chretien’s cabinet.

Tobin’s abilities have propelled him close to but not yet into the inner circle of Liberal politics. For while insiders say he has impressed them with his handling of the affair last week, he was not given the latitude that a more senior minister might have been given. And yet Tobin was a good enough politician to realize his limitations and not strain at the leash.

Tobin, who turned 40 last October, was first elected in 1980 at age 25, and was quickly spotted by Pierre Trudeau’s talent scouts as a valuable rookie. He was given a coveted spot on the joint Senate-Commons constitution committee and was appointed parliamentary secretary to two fisheries ministers. Even as a freshman MP, Tobin had no lack of self-confidence. When Trudeau was looking for a Newfoundland cabinet minister in the early 1980s, Tobin was publicly aghast that anyone might think him too inexperienced.

But it was his time in Opposition that brought Tobin, a former television news anchor and reporter at CJON in St. John’s, to national prominence as a member of the Liberal “rat pack,” along with now-Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps. Tobin and the others drove Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Tories to distraction. Kicked out of the Commons for a day in 1985 for calling Mulroney a liar, Tobin also derailed plans by then-transport minister Don Mazankowski to overhaul legislation governing shipping in Canada and to pass on the costs of ice-breaking and other services to those who benefited from them. The battle, waged from 1985 to 1986, showed that he had not just a quick tongue, but also persistence and an ability to master the details of policy and legislation.

Those who know him well say there is a subtlety about Tobin that becomes apparent when he talks about the importance of his family (he and his wife, Jodean, a nurse, have three children), and his regret that he never learned to play music. “One of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself is the ability to make music,” he told Maclean’s. “I envy those who can do that–just have some quiet time and make some music.”

With his quick sense of humor, an ever-ready quote, and media savvy learned in the trade, Tobin was an Opposition natural. But what has caused surprise in Ottawa has been the easy way he has adapted to government. Still, the ease of the shift did not surprise him. He had become frustrated, he says, with the one-dimensional politics of criticism and wanted a chance to solve problems. He has grown in the office, colleagues say–and his always-impressive political skills have improved. There are those in Ottawa who see echoes of Jean Chretien, and Chretien himself is said to have a lot of time for his fisheries minister–even to the point of letting him take the country to the brink of an armed showdown.


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