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Canada Fires Warning Shots; Seizes Spanish Fishing Boat

By Anne Swardson
The Washington Post
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia

Canadian patrol boats fired warning shots at a Spanish fishing vessel in international waters Thursday, then boarded it, arrested the captain and began towing the ship to a Canadian port in an action designed to stop what Canadian officials said was overfishing of turbot.

The European Union, which oversees fishing issues for its member nations, condemned Canada, calling the high seas dispute over turbot fishing an act of "organized piracy."

After a day of confusion about what actually occurred just outside Canada's 200-mile limit off Newfoundland, EU Fisheries Commissioner Emma Bonino said Canadian authorities tried to board the Estai around noon, but the boat got away. She added that the EU was keeping its options open to retaliate with diplomatic or trade sanctions, the Associated Press reported.

Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin, however, said officers from three Canadian fisheries and coast guard vessels boarded the Estai after two earlier attempts were foiled when Estai crew members cut their nets, cast off the boarding ladders and steamed away. The trawler stopped after the Canadian ships fired four 50mm warning shots.

The Estai, one of five Spanish boats fishing just outside Canada's territorial waters, was being taken to the Newfoundland port of St. John's Thursday night. Tobin said 95 percent of the contents of the trawler's freezers were turbot, a large flatfish also called a Greenland halibut. He added that the operation would continue Friday if any more trawlers were found fishing for turbot.

"These are the last viable commercial straddling stocks," Tobin said, referring to fish that cross between territorial waters and the open seas. "Without action at this time, that stock will not be around next year."

Thursday's incident marked a dramatic escalation of Canada's efforts to halt what it says is overfishing of its own fish stocks in international waters. Since last year, Canada has seized two American scallop-fishing vessels in international waters off Newfoundland, and arrested a Panamanian-registered trawler, also off the Grand Banks. It temporarily imposed a $1,000 fee on American boats fishing for salmon off Canada's west coast last summer.

The Canadian Parliament last year approved legislation authorizing seizures on the high seas, contending it can do so because two sections of its territorial fishing grounds on the Grank Banks extend into the high seas. The government issued regulations implementing that law Friday.

In the case of turbot, Canada contends it can act because ships from Spain and Portugal have exceeded EU allocations of turbot that were agreed to last fall by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. The quotas reduced the EU allocation from 70 percent of the total catch to about 12 percent, which equals about 3,400 metric tons of turbot. Canada contends the EU already has caught that amount.

Canada, one of the more aggressive nations in asserting its fishing rights, fears turbot will go the way of the cod, a fish that formerly sustained much of Canada's east coast fishing industry but has been all but wiped out by overfishing. The EU's catches of turbot in the Atlantic off Canada have risen more than tenfold in the past 10 years.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien spoke with EU President Jacques Santer by phone Thursday night. Santer reportedly proposed negotiation; Chretien responded that the EU fishing vessels would have to leave first. The vessels pulled out briefly Tuesday after Tobin first threatened to use force, but returned Wednesday.