Canada and Spain take fish war to UN

Canada and Spain remained bitterly at odds over fisheries policy at the start of a United Nations conservation conference in New York yesterday, hours after renewed skirmishing between their vessels in the North Atlantic.

Two weeks after Canada prompted international uproar and enraged the European Union by arresting a Spanish trawler, the Estai, outside its 200-mile territorial limit on the edge of the Grand Banks, its patrol boats again engaged vessels from Spain on Sunday, cutting the nets of one.

The fresh clash, condemned by the EU yesterday as an "act of international piracy", raised the temperature at the start of the conference, which aims to establish an international convention to regulate fishing activities on the high seas, beyond national 200-mile limits.

Fishermen in the Grand Banks area on Sunday said that only the presence of a Spanish patrol ship, the Vigia, prevented Canadian officials from boarding one of the trawlers. "We are just waiting for some disaster to happen to one of us, for someone to get killed," a Spanish trawler skipper told Canadian radio. "That's all that's left to happen."

Brian Tobin, the Canadian Fisheries Minister, defended his government's actions at the start of the UN meeting, saying it had no choice but to intervene even beyond the 200-mile limit to protect stocks. "We could not watch straddling stocks on the Grand Banks meet their ultimate destruction", he argued, insisting that Canada "took no pride" in its unilateral stance. Mr Tobin repeated the charges laid against the Estai, released 10 days ago after its owners posted bail of 500,000 Canadian dollars (£230,000). These include claims that it was keeping a secret log-book and was using mesh sizes well below those allowed under present laws.

The charges were rebutted by the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Emma Bonino, also in New York, who accused Canada of acting like a self-appointed Wild West sheriff in seizing the Estai.

Mr Tobin announced he had arrived in New York with the net of the Estai, which measures the height of a 17-storey building, and intended to present it to Ms Bonino today, with some of the juvenile fish found inside it.

Meanwhile, the director for fisheries of the Spanish government, Raphael Conde, dismissed any idea that after Sunday's clashes the Spanish vessels would finally withdraw from the disputed areas. "Why should we? We are not fishing illegally," he told reporters.

The row could give new urgency to the UN talks, which have been going on already for two years.

Canada is pushing for agreement on a new international convention precisely to introduce controls on the kind of high-seas fishing beyond 200-mile coastal limits that is at the heart of the dispute with Spain. Such a convention would be legally binding, with tough punishment for vessels and countries found to be violating its provisions.

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