Threat of total ban on turbot fishing

As negotiations between Canada and the European Union on ending the fishery stand-off faltered yesterday, Canada warned that the stocks in dispute, of Greenland halibut, may be so depleted already that all nations will have to abide by an immediate moratorium.

At the same time, documents from the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (Nafo) emerged, indicating that European boats were caught regularly in recent years breaking the rules in the Grand Banks area off the Canadian coast, but were rarely prosecuted.

The diplomatic negotiations that began in Brussels following the release from St John's harbour on Wednesday of the Spanish trawler Estai were meant to prepare the ground for a ministerial session of Nafo next week.

Canada has asked for a postponement of the meeting, however, and its negotiators have been recalled to Ottawa.

A scientific vessel sailed from St John's to where the Estai was seized on 9 March on the edge of the Grand Banks, just beyond Canada's 200-mile territorial waters, to assess how many Greenland halibut remain.

The Fisheries Minister, Brian Tobin, warned: "If the only way that the stock is viable is to fish it the way the Estai was, then maybe it ought not be fished, period". The prospect was greeted with resignation by fishermen in St John's whose lives have been devastated by a ban on cod fishing. "Nobody wants to see another moratorium," Earle McCurdy, president of the fishermen's union, said. "But there comes a time when the best recourse is to give the fish a rest".

Mr Tobin said if enough fish are found in the waters, Canada may offer the Europeans an increased share of the Nafo quota for Greenland halibut, set this year at 27,000 tons. The EU share of that total had been fixed at 3,400 tons, considered unacceptable by Brussels.

The Nafo documents show that in 1992 and 1993, inspectors from Canada and the EU issued scores of citations against Spanish and Portuguese vessels in the Grand Banks.

Under Nafo rules, it is up to the vessels' home countries to prosecute. But in 1993, only six of the 49 vessels charged with violations were prosecuted.

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