Bedevilled in the deep blue sea

War over the humble halibut offers a chance to end the global pillage of the oceans, argues David Usborne
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These are rare days for that undistinguished fish that patrols the muddy crevices of the ocean floor, and whose whole body is covered with a thick layer of glutinous slime. Those foolish humans have never before even agreed on its name - turbot to the Canadians, Greenland halibut to the Europeans - but now they seem close to going to war over them.

It is conceivable even that the humble halibut, good only for fish fingers, will be the species that finally spurs mankind into ending his rape of the oceans. The battle between Canada and Spain has re-awakened public awareness of the issue. This week, fishing nations from around the world gathered at the UN in New York to consider new curbs on high-seas fishing.

The UN says that 70 per cent of global fishing stocks are "depleted" or "almost depleted". For some species it may already be too late to halt the decline. Take cod, in the Grand Banks area off the coast of Newfoundland. A cod moratorium was imposed there three years ago, but the spawning mass of the species has declined by 99 per cent each successive year. That there is an urgent need for fundamental reform of the world's fishing practices is unanswerable.

If the world now has an opportunity to change course, history will surely credit Brian Tobin. He is the young and suave Canadian Fisheries Minister who ordered his patrol vessels on 9 March to board and seize the Spanish trawler, the Estai, for fishing the halibut with small-mesh nets. It was a controversial move because the Estai was working waters on the "nose" and "tail" of the Grand Banks shelf just beyond the 200-mile limit that, under existing international law, marks the extent of Canadian sovereignty.

With the liberal government of the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chrtien, behind him, Mr Tobin has consistently argued that he could not watch helplessly as any of what remained of the Grand Banks' stocks migrated unknowingly beyond the 200-mile mark, only to be vacuumed up by the Spanish fleet. He knows he has affronted international law, but appears sincerely to believe that laws indeed are sometimes there to be broken. And the breaking of them will impel governments, now, at the UN, to make new and better ones.

While Mr Tobin, whose upbringing on an American Air Force base may explain his rather unCanadian style of frank speech, is a hero to conservationists, his motives have hardly been apolitical. In the three short weeks since his action, he has soared to the top of the Canadian popularity charts. He used to be a low-ranking minister burdened with what seemed an entirely thankless cabinet responsibility. Now there is chatter of him as Mr Chrtien's successor. Cartoonists call him the "Tobinator".

And how convenient for the Canadian government to have found this issue when it has just imposed the harshest austerity budget in the nation's history and its armed forces are in disgrace over the actions of some Canadian peacekeepers in Somalia. Nor is it unhelpful that the foreign enemy is the Spanish. Distinct tinges of racism have surfaced in some of the pro-Tobin editorialising, such as in the Toronto Sun's observation about the people of Vigo: "What's their problem ... too much inbreeding?"

Furthermore, Mr Tobin teeters on the edge of exaggeration. On the Grand Banks themselves, the Canadian patrol vessels on Sunday unveiled their latest weapon: huge scissor-like contraptions that can cut through the steel cables from which the Spanish nets are suspended. As one Spanish captain warned on Monday, it will not be long before someone gets hurt or, worse, is killed. And the minister's decision to bring to New York the offending net of the Estai as "evidence" looks a little too transparently like a media stunt.

Mr Tobin, though, has successfully mobilised conservationist public opinion in both Canada and Europe, from where his office has received a torrent of messages of support. By dismal contrast, the European Union, represented in New York by the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Emma Bonino, has evidently decided to hunker down, unable to go beyond maintaining solidarity with one of its member states on the one hand, and, on the other, protesting the albeit indisputable fact of Canada's violation of international law outside its coastal limit.

Mrs Bonino opened her visit to New York with a truly disastrous press conference, which descended into a futile shouting match within minutes. Even some normally restrained (and neither Canadian nor Spanish) correspondents found themselves forced to take issue with her. Aside from suggesting that Canada had somehow forgone the right to call itself a civilised country, Mrs Bonino said that the apparently overwhelming evidence of fiddling found aboard the Estai - its phoney log-book, the net with pathetically small mesh sizes and the secret hold of protected American plaice - were invalid and, by implication, even Canadian fabrications.

With flabbergasting disingenuousness, the commissioner complained that the EU had not even been given the chance to inspect the Estai's net the day it was retrieved from the ocean bed and brought into port in St John's. And yet the net was laid out for all to see on a public quay for the best part of a day, with an EU monitor only yards away in a harbourside hotel. I even invited him to come along to look at the net with me. He could not, he said, because it might have given the impression that the EU endorsed the Canadian action.

Brussels believes there is a point of principle here. Canada is at once breaking an international treaty - the Law of the Sea - by continuing itspolicing action against the Spanish, while at the same time riding arrogantly into New York and demanding new laws to protect stocks. The double standard is indeed glaring. Why, though, will the EU not concede that perhaps - just perhaps - the Spanish were indeed at fault, and that this meeting in New York provides a chance to transcend the bickering over principle, and to act? Public sympathy in Europe (and certainly in Britain) appears to be with the Canadians, so why not tap into that and start real, tough reforms?

It may be that Mrs Bonino and the other commissioner most closely involved, Sir Leon Brittan, simply cannot bring themselves to swallow their principles and move on. More likely, what is stopping the EU is a fear of what those reforms, if undertaken honestly and ruthlessly, would mean to coastal communities all around Europe. What would happen is what has already befallen Newfoundland, where 40,000 people have lost their jobs in three years, out of a total population of only half a million.

European politicans might do well to visit St John's or any of the 800 outports of a province that until 1949 was British territory. True, the sight of what follows when you simply forbid further fishing will scare them. But it will also give them a glimpse of what the future holds for the industry everywhere in the world if the pillage of the oceans is not swiftly brought to a halt.