War Over Fish Sticks? Canada, Spain Spar

A SIZZLING fishing dispute that prompted Canadian authorities to seize a Spanish trawler in international waters off Newfoundland last week has resulted in a standoff between Canadian and Spanish warships.

Crying ''piracy,'' European Union officials are threatening a trade war if Canada does not stop seizing its boats on the high seas. To bolster its cause, Spain dispatched the Vigia, an armed offshore patrol ship, to the Grand Banks area off the coast of Newfoundland.

''We will take all diplomatic measures to ensure this flagrant violation of international law is corrected,'' Javier Solana, Spain's foreign minister, said Saturday.

Brian Tobin, Canada's minister of fisheries, said Canada will continue to seize boats if necessary to stop the overfishing of turbot, a declining fish species that lives in the Grand Banks fishing area.

''It's not the mark of a pirate to reach out in desperation at the 11th hour and try to save the last [fish] stock'' on the Grand Banks, he said. ''It's the mark of a patriot.''

Whether patriot or pirate, Canadian patrol boats chased the Spanish trawler Estai for several hours Thursday through heavy fog before firing four bursts from a machine gun across its bow. The Estai was reportedly fishing for turbot about 22 nautical miles outside Canada's 200-mile coastal limit when Canadian ships began their pursuit.

Confrontation over the lowly turbot -- the main ingredient in fish sticks -- was building all week as Mr. Tobin repeatedly warned Spanish and Portuguese ships to withdraw from the waters.

Cod, turbot, and other so-called ''straddling stocks'' swim back and forth over the 200-mile coastal limit. Canada has complained for years that foreign overfishing outside its waters is decimating Grand Banks straddling stocks.

Newfoundland is the core of Canada's Atlantic fishing industry. A decade of overfishing by both Canadian and foreign vessels has left the Grand Banks nearly devoid of fish. Newfoundland's fishing economy has shrunk, with 40,000 unemployed fishermen and a 19 percent unemployment rate.

Canadian officials say it is now up to them to enforce an international quota, or else see the turbot disappear -- as have cod and other species. The quota was set by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), to which the EU, Spain, Portugal, and Canada belong.

About 60 percent of the 27,000-ton NAFO quota was allocated to Canada, 12 percent going to the EU. Unhappy with its share, the EU is ignoring the quota, Canadian officials say. EU boats were well over their share when the Estai was seized, they say.

Early last week, Spain had 39 boats fishing for turbot off the so-called ''nose'' and ''tail'' regions of the Grand Banks, two underwater land masses that jut out into international waters. Due to Canadian pressure, the number dwindled to 14 by week's end.

The ''Spanish armada,'' as Canadian officials call the Spanish fishing fleet, is renowned for rapacious fishing practices. It is widely believed to use small-mesh nets that trap even young fish and was ousted from waters off Namibia in the 1980s. It has even been restricted from fishing in European waters until next year.

Tobin says the Estai will be impounded and its captain charged under Canadian law. The crew will be returned home.

Downplaying the fact that warships are now involved in the dispute, Tobin nevertheless admitted Friday that the Canadian destroyer Terra Nova, which has ship-to-ship missile capability, was dispatched to the area. He also proposed negotiations.

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