Spanish trawler's `illegal' net found

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As Canada and the EU held talks yesterday in Brussels in an attempt to resolve their bitter fishing dispute, Ottawa continued to press its case against the Spanish trawler at the centre of it, claiming that a net recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic proved that the Estai, had violated international law.

The net, with a mesh-size well below the legal minimum, was brought into St John's harbour early yesterday aboard a Canadian trawler, which had retrieved it - somewhat miraculously - from 4,200 feet of water in the area that the Estai was seized just over a week ago. The Estai steamed out of St John's late on Wednesday evening, deck-lights blazing, after its Spanish owners posted a 500,000 Canadian dollar (£227,000) bond with the authorities.

The vessel left only after an impromptu party had been held on board for the crew, with wine and canned mussels, by the Spanish ambassador to Canada, Jose-Luis Pardos.

The release of the Estai has helped ease some of the immediate tension in the dispute, which has spawned strong nationalist feelings in Spain and Canada. But as diplomatic negotiations began in Brussels, there was a warning from Canada that progress was likely to be slow. "I think that the negotiations are going to be extremely difficult, no question," Brian Tobin, the Minister for Fisheries, said. "But I do think that we can succeed and come up with something meaningful."

Mr Tobin's position is likely to be considerably strengthened if tests show that the net found on the ocean bed came from the Estai. Officials believe it was cut loose by the crew before the ship was boarded by the Canadian Coast Guard.

Drawn the full length of the deck of the Canadian trawler that recovered it, the net appeared to be a powerful exhibit for the prosecution. The mesh of the main net measured 115 millimetres, compared to a 130- millimetre minimum set by the North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation. Much more damning was another net within the net - a liner - with a mesh size of just 80 millimetres.

The liner, to the unprofessional eye, looked much like a tennis-court net, with holes big enough only for the tiniest of fish to escape through. It was still bulging yesterday with juvenile Greenland halibut - the species at the centre of the dispute - and redfish, American plaice and other oddities, including small species of shark.

Mr Tobin has charged additionally that a secret hold aboard the Estai, concealed behind false bulkheads, contained 25 tons of American plaice, a species protected by a comprehensive moratorium. About 80 percent of the Greenland halibut, or turbot, caught by the Estai was undersized, immature fish, a government official said.

The EU says that there is no minimum size limit.

That the net belonged to the Estai was not in doubt, at least in the minds of the Canadian fishermen who recovered it. "They might deny it, but there's no question about it," said Cecil Barnes, a crew member who said that some of the fish were still alive when they were brought up in the net.

"They hadn't been down there for long; they were alive and shiny."

The irony of earning their living fishing for European nets - rather than for fish - was not lost on the Canadian crew. These men, who normally would spend most of their winter on the high seas, have only worked 10 days since Christmas.

Canada has imposed an indefinite cod moratorium on the Grand Banks, once one of the world's richest cod grounds. A two-month suspension for Greenland halibut was ordered this month, adding further hardship to Newfoundland's decimated fishing communities.

"What's going to become of us?" asked Ches Brice, another crew member. "I want to know what is going to happen to us in Newfoundland. We are hitting a brick wall."

Among these men, as among all Newfoundlanders, there is anger at European vessels fishing close to the edge of Canada's 200-mile territorial limit. Canada is defending its right to seize boats plundering fish stocks in international waters beyond the 200-mile zone.

There were several European vessels reported yesterday to be operating on the fringe of the disputed areas, on both the "nose" and "tail" of the Grand Banks.

Mr Tobin, who, with the Canadian government at large is enjoying a swell of popular support for his actions, served notice that those boats would risk following the Estai's fate if they moved any further into the Grand Banks.