For us, Newfoundland is like a second home

Jos Manuel Muiz, whose family has fished off Canada for generations, puts the case for Spanish trawlermen
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The Independent Online
We were very downcast by Canada's seizure of our ship. Their action has poisoned relations between the people of Newfoundland and Spanish fishermen from Galicia and the Basque country, breaking a long historical tradition that goes back two centuries.

I've often fished off Newfoundland and my father and all my family have fished there for generations. For us, Newfoundland is like a second home. Some of us have family ties there, and it is a blow to be allowed no closer than 200 miles from the coast.

Canada is trying forcibly to increase the limit to 400 miles, in breach of international maritime law. It is a policy of pure expansionism.

Canada passed a law in May 1994, enabling them to go beyond the 200-mile limit in pursuit of foreign fishing vessels. We warned Brussels at the time that this would cause problems.

We always stay in international waters outside the 200-mile limit: we never breach it. In fact, we scrupulously respect it - how could we justify our actions otherwise? The Nafo [North Atlantic Fishing Organisation] has recorded only one infraction of the 200-mile limit in the last five years.

As for the criticism that we use illegal nets, it is obvious that with 20,000 Spanish trawlermen operating, there will always be someone who doesn't comply. It is like a motorway full of traffic: there are bound to be occasional breaches of the law. But some people are trying to use this to tar all of us with that brush, and to justify illegal actions against us.

The EU's attitude has been lamentable, shameful and humiliating. It has subjugated itself totally to Canada's interests, influenced by Britain's traditional Commonwealth links and France's ties in Quebec. Europe has abandoned and humiliated us before a country that has been internationally condemned for an act of piracy. We are deeply disappointed with the EU. It has shown that it does not protect our fishermen - Spain is the most important fishing nation in the EU - and has gone grovelling on its knees to Canada.

I think there is something else that is hiding behind this war of the Greenland halibut. The Canadian government is using it as a pretext to whip up xenophobia, like the Argentine generals did when they invaded the Malvinas, because they have serious internal political problems. It is nothing but a puppet show put on by Brian Tobin, the Canadian fishing minister.

We in the European fleet, all of us Spaniards and Portuguese, have made huge efforts to reduce our catch of Greenland halibut, which was 60,000 tons in 1994. Nafo proposed the catch be reduced to 40,000 in 1995; Canada said last September the Spanish catch should be 27,000 tons; and now, independently of Nafo - of which they are a member - they want to cut it to 3,500 tons for 1995. We have already cut our fleet drastically, from 40 vessels last year to 20, causing hardship for our families and unemployment in our region.

It is not a problem of resources. We all respect the need to protect fish stocks. But Canada has put forward no scientific data to back its claims. It wants to control international waters and change the international law of the sea by force.

We respect the existing rules, which say that we have the right to continue fishing Greenland halibut. Canada has set a dangerous precedent. It should stop its aggressive activity and apologise.

Jos Manuel Muiz, president of the Spanish Association of Trawlermen, was talking to Elizabeth Nash.