Tension has returned again to the South Atlantic. Britain's decision last week to establish a fisheries protection zone around the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands has brought its relations with Argentina to their lowest point since the end of the 1982 war over sovereignty rights to the islands.
The British move ``has created an extremely delicate situation,'' said Argentina's Foreign Minister Dante Caputo, and is viewed here as a provocation and a usurpation of Argentine territory.
Though strong words have been used in response to the action, a renewal of armed conflict is highly unlikely. The country's democratic government is intent on finding a peaceful, negotiated solution to the sovereignty dispute. Argentine President Ra'ul Alfons'in has gone on the diplomatic offensive over the fishing issue, seeking support from other countries and in international forums. It will be a key issue of debate at next week's annual session of the Organization of American States in Guatemala.
The British decision to enforce a 200-mile fishing zone beginning Feb. 1, 1987, creates overlapping zones with Argentina and poses a serious problem for the country's coast guard. It creates the danger of incidents between the Argentinian guard and foreign fishing vessels due to differing interpretations of who controls what area.
Before the 1982 war, Argentina exercised fisheries protection patrols up to 200 miles off its own continental mainland and also in the 200-mile area around the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands. These patrols controlled the exploitation of the abundant whiting, hake, and squid shoals that are found across the continental shelf in the southwest Atlantic.
After the war, Britain established a 150-mile protection zone around the islands to keep potentially hostile Argentinian ships at a distance. This put an end to the fisheries patrols within the zone. Foreign trawlers were suddenly free to reap a bonanza in the unpoliced area.
In the four years since the war, foreign trawlers have quadrupled their fishing effort in the region, threatening the survivability of the fish stocks.
Argentina, in an attempt to reverse this situation, signed fishing agreements with the Soviet Union and Bulgaria in July that cover the territory below the 46th parallel and along the continental shelf. The agreements establish ceilings on catches and bring benefits to the Argentine fishing industry.
The agreements also carry with them an implicit recognition of Argentina's sovereignty claim, and this upset the British. British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe said last week that the fishing deals helped to precipitate Britain's decision to impose its own fisheries protection zone.
Britain's new ``exclusive economic zone'' of 200 miles overlaps the 200-mile zone off Argentina's continental mainland. Previously, the 150-mile protection zone, measured from a spot in the center of the islands, did not impinge excessively into Argentina's 200-mile zone, and Argentinian coast guard vessels avoided incidents by keeping away from it. The new claim is measured from the shores of the islands and extends considerably into the areas fished by Argentinian trawlers and patrolled by the coast guard.
According to Sir Geoffrey, Britain only intends to police its new fisheries zone up to the 150-mile limit. Thus, direct conflict between fisheries protection vessels of the two countries seems likely to be avoided.
The danger of serious incidents remains, however. Mr. Caputo has said that any foreign trawlers entering Argentina's economic zone will be arrested. If they fail to stop under the instruction of the coast guard, ``the ultimate recourse is to act militarily against them,'' he said. That Argentina is willing to do so was demonstrated in May, when it sank a Taiwanese trawler that refused to stop at the coast guard's request.
Now a British trawler captain could fish within Argentinian waters, arguing he is doing so within his rights under Britain's new 200-mile claim. Yet he could be arrested, or worse, fired upon by an Argentine coast guard vessel.
The weakness of the British position is that it depends entirely on the willingness of foreign trawler skippers not to venture beyond the 150-mile limit, if incidents are to be avoided. Trawler captains the world over, however, are notorious for their scant regard for imaginary lines drawn on the sea. The situation thus remains fraught with potential danger.