TORONTO — WITH fish stocks falling fast on Canada's Atlantic coast, pressure is growing for Canada's federal government to further restrict or even deny foreign fishing fleets' access to Canadian waters.
"This is the most explosive foreign policy issue that Canada faces," warned former Canadian Fisheries Minister John Crosbie last year. "Failure to reach a settlement [on international fishing quotas in 1992] could lead to a major breach in our relations" with the European Community and others.
Last week Mr. Crosbie's prediction appeared to be coming true. While Canadian and European diplomats at a United Nations conference on fish-stocks management in New York were trading insults and agreeing on little, another serious confrontation was happening hundreds of miles to the north.
Canadian fishermen aboard more than 100 small fishing boats in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, blockaded a huge Russian trawler for eight days to prevent it from unloading 850 tons of frozen cod. Nova Scotia's 3,000 "inshore" fishermen, who fish within 12 miles of the coast, want large foreign ships out of Canadian waters, saying they catch valuable cod and haddock along with less valuable species the foreign boats are permitted to catch.
Canada has banned most cod fishing in Canadian waters, throwing more than 20,000 fishermen out of work in the Atlantic region, while also severely reducing the fishermen's quotas of other valuable ground fish such as haddock. But foreign boats are allowed to sell cod caught by mistake in Canadian ports. Canadian fishermen shun the silver hake and mackerel that travel with cod because there is no market for them.
Inshore fishermen, who fish with hook and line and take only a few hundred pounds of fish each day, blame large trawlers - Canadian as well as foreign - for devastating fish stocks.
The blockade ended Friday when federal officials agreed to reexamine the impact of foreign fishing on Canadian fish stocks and fishermen. The government also agreed to reexamine how the fishermen's quota is counted.
"I think we finally have gotten the message through that fish inside Canadian territorial boundaries will be Canadian," says Timothy Nickerson, vice president of the Eastern Fishermen's Federation. "If the fish is there, we're the best folks to ... catch it."
Mr. Nickerson, whose group represents the inshore fishermen, says that there was no agreement to deny foreign vessels access, but that in the future "they'll be following a lot stricter guidelines. Before there were practically no guidelines."
As part of the agreement, the government has ordered the 15 Russian and Cuban vessels fishing for hake along the southern coast of the province to leave by Aug. 20 - about the time they would have left anyway. And talks to iron out some details of the deal between fishermen and the government are expected to continue in Ottawa this week.
"We understand a bit better the diplomatic side of it," Nickerson says. "But they have got to learn a lesson in the practical fishing side of it. We're not just fishing on a computer screen. We're some real people that have some real problems, and we know how to solve them."