Canada enjoys moral glow over `illegal' trawler arrest

Fisheries/ debate widens
AS IF sending a "Keep Out" message to man, nature has this weekend laid a frigid seal on the waters off Newfoundland. Where just three days ago the disgraced Spanish trawler, the Estai, was steaming out of harbour here into a heavy Atlantic chop for the voyage home, suddenly now there is only ice; a glowing pasture of ice floes that stretches out of St John's harbour and as far as the eye can see.

Testament to an unusually harsh Labrador winter, the vast Arctic ice is drifting south and will probably break up as quickly as it appeared. It offers, therefore, little shelter to what is below: the fish. And as the whole world learned last week, shelter is what the fish urgently need.

There may just be, however, room now for hope. By arresting the Estai 10 days ago, accusing it of abusing stocks of Greenland halibut, known here as turbot, and prompting outraged cries of "foul" from the European Union, the government of Canada may have kickstarted efforts to get to grips at last with the scourge of global over-fishing.

In the process, of course, it has also earned itself a tidal wave of popular support at home, with normally placid Canadians coming together as they have rarely done before.

That Canada overstepped its legal rights by projecting its sovereignty to the "nose" and "tail" of the Grand Banks, which jut a little beyond its recognised 200-mile territorial limit, to seize the Estai, is barely in dispute. "You may as well have invaded a foreign country", remarked one senior EU diplomat in New York. "It is like Britain sending its police into France".

But Canada is not apologising. The rationalisation is simple: if the government was forced to go beyond international regulations, then it is the regulations that are lacking and in need of examination. The Newfoundland Premier, Clyde Wells, compares it with Britain intervening off the coast of West Africa to quash the slave trade. International law eventually caught up with British morality.

"International law is not an absolute", he said in an interview. "Sometimes a country has to take an action which over a period of time becomes accepted by the international community. In this instance, we could not stand by and watch our stocks being fished to virtual extinction."

Mr Wells admits that as the leader of a remote maritime province, where all but 30 of its 800 mostly rural communities are on tidal water and have historically been dependent on fishing, he has trouble "staying civilised" when discussing the Estai and what he regards as the long record of pillage off this coastline by Spanish and Portuguese fishermen.

"It's difficult to know what to liken it to", he splutters. "When people abuse mankind we call it a crime against humanity. This to me is just the same."

Few in Newfoundland, where a moratorium on eight fish stocks, including cod, has put 40,000 out of work, would correct Mr Wells.

And whereas until only weeks ago they were vilifying the federal government in Ottawa for failing to protect them from the fishing catastrophe, all Newfies are now applauding it and in particular the Minister of Fisheries - and bogeyman of Brussels - Brian Tobin. "Bravo Brian The Man", exclaimed the banners at a rally at the St John's quayside last weekend, when the Estai was first escorted in.

And the acclaim is not limited just to Newfoundland. Mr Tobin apparently had it right when he proclaimed this week that Canadians were tired of being "the world's patsy", always apologising for "drawing to someone's attention that they are standing on our foot".

Editorials from Halifax to Victoria have lionised the minister. Most astonishing of all, even the leaders of the Quebec separatist movement have spoken out in the government's support.

The liberal government, led by Jean Chretien, can hardly believe its luck. These should be tricky times. The nasty sore of Quebec separatism will not go away and only three weeks ago, Mr Chretien was forced to impose a harsh austerity budget on the country to avert financial disaster because of rampant federal debt. All has been eclipsed by the joy of seeing the country stand up to Europe, however.

That the main target happens to be Spain appears to have helped. In that, there may be a racist tinge to the affair.

On Wednesday, the tabloid Toronto Sun printed a comment article which was in the tradition of the British Sun's "Up the Argies" during the Falklands War.

Canadians have not missed the fact, meanwhile, that while all EU governments are showing unity behind Spain, popular sentiment in many states, especially in Britain, is with them. Letters of support, faxes and telexes have been coming in to Mr Tobin and Mr Wells from Britain, Ireland and Germany.

"I think that many British people are mightily offended by Spain's behaviour," Mr Wells concludes. "But unfortunately the British government continues to support Spain and Portugal, as European Union members."

Less attention is being paid to Canada's own history of over-fishing, encouraged for years, not least in this province, by generous government subsidies.

But with that in the past, Ottawa believes it now has the high ground and intends to press for change, first at a meeting scheduled for this week at the headquarters of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and also at the ongoing conference on so-called "straddling stocks" - those fish that migrate between national and international waters - at the United Nations that resumes on 27 March.

Canada's goal is fairly simple: to establish clear controls on trawlers working areas with threatened stocks which lie beyond the current 200- mile boundaries of national jurisdictions - as on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks - coupled with strong and consistently enforced penalties for those who flout them.

The Estai confrontation may propel all sides towards achieving that. But with the UN warning already that 70 per cent of world fish stocks are "depleted" or "almost depleted", there remains the risk that even that would be too little too late.

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