WITH more high-tech trawlers scooping up the world's fish, Canada has stepped forward as the new ''voice of the fish.'' Critics smell something fishy.
Taking the ecological high ground, Canadian officials have called for preserving world fish stocks ever since its gunboat standoff on the high seas this month with the European Union over Spain's taking of turbot -- an ugly, bottom-feeding species that usually ends up as fish sticks in grocery freezers.
Canada will again knock heads at a March 27 United Nations conference in a bid to push through tough laws protecting species like the turbot, which swim back and forth between 200-mile coastal waters and the high seas.
But shipboard observers and others within Canada's fishing industry say the country's lofty declarations are at odds with its own record. Overfishing of some species in Canadian waters, and the failure to halt wasteful practices, undermine the nation's credibility as a standard-bearer for fish conservation, they say.
''We blame the loss of our fish on ... [predatory] seals, and foreigners -- on anybody but us Canadians,'' says Owen Myers, a former fisheries observer on board Canadian fishing boats, now a fisheries lawyer in St. John's, Newfoundland. ''Turbot has been pummeled for the last decade, but only a small portion is accessible to anyone but Canadians.''
Earlier this month, Canada ordered Spanish fishing boats in international waters just beyond Canada's 200-mile limit to stop netting turbot. When they refused, a trawler was arrested March 9 and hauled to shore with much fanfare.
In the wake of the arrest, Canada's Minister of Fisheries Brian Tobin said that Canada is ''not without sin'' on overfishing. But he also said Canada's 1992 moratorium on ''groundfish'' -- cod, flounder, haddock, and other species -- represents broad reforms well under way.
''I think Canada has learned a lesson, and a lot of the errors have been fixed,'' says Leslie Harris, chairman of a government panel that advises Mr. Tobin on foreign fishing in Canadian waters. ''There have been certain errors in management in the past. Quotas may have been too high. But Canadian fishermen have not overfished their quotas.''
Yet for some, such mea culpas ring hollow.
''As far as being a paragon of virtue, Canada has a long way to go to be a model of fish management,'' says Bernard Martin, an unemployed fisherman who lives in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. ''We have severely overfished groundfish and most other stocks since 1977 when Canada took over control of its 200-mile limit.''
The result of this overfishing can be seen today in Newfoundland, where the unemployment rate is 19 percent. More than 40,000 fishermen across Canada's Atlantic provinces are unemployed because few species remain in commercial quantities in Canadian waters.
DESPITE this human hardship, wasteful practices continue contrary to public statements that the worst abuses have been corrected, say fisheries observers who monitor ship practices for the federal government.
''They're doing to shrimp exactly what they did to Northern cod,'' says one observer who insisted on anonymity. ''They're catching a lot of small, immature animals.... Shrimp stocks are good right now, but if they keep doing what they're doing, they won't be.''
Researchers at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans say mackerel, shellfish, scallop, crab, and lobster stocks are healthy. But other observers say these won't last long without a crackdown on ''high grading.'' To get maximum value from a quota, fishermen frequently dump undesirable and undersize fish dead or dying back into the ocean.
High grading, many say, is the consequence of an unselective fishing technique called ''dragging,'' still the most widely used fishing practice in Canadian waters. This involves a powerful 65-to-200-foot-long trawler dragging a net and metal door weighing several tons across the ocean floor.
Virtually everything is swept into the net -- starfish, sharks, rocks, cod, jellyfish. Efforts to reduce trawling catches of non-targeted species with modified equipment are being tested. Fishermen who use traditional baited hooks on long lines blame the trawler draggers for destroying Canada's Atlantic fish stocks.
''It's only on paper that Canada has cleaned up its act,'' says Gary Dedrick, a fisherman and executive director of the Southwest Nova Fixed Gear Association based in Shelburne, Nova Scotia.
While dragging continues, it has lessened since the cod moratorium. Canada's two biggest fish- processing companies -- National Sea Products of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Fisheries Products Incorporated of St. John's, Newfoundland -- have been selling off their dragger fleets. There just weren't enough fish for them to catch, company officials say.
So far, at least 65 Canadian draggers have been sold to countries like Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, New Zealand, Namibia, Iceland, and South Africa. Canadian companies have been working to develop joint ventures with India to put a fleet of draggers into India's 200-mile territorial zone.
''We're allowing the same destructive technology to be sold so that other countries will do the same damage to themselves that we've done to ourselves,'' says Catherine Stewart, a spokeswoman from the environmental group Greenpeace International. ''It's insane to allow this to go on.''
SELLING draggers to third-world countries is no more crazy than current Canadian practices involving Canada's capelin and lumpfish populations, says Mr. Martin.
Until last year, Canada's fishing fleet had zealously turned from fishing cod to capelin -- a small, smelt-like fish at the bottom of the food chain. Cod, salmon, flounder, turbot, redfish, pollock, haddock, puffins, gulls, seals, and whales all depend on capelin. Not many capelin appeared last year, so fishing for them was halted.
''The only market for these fish is in Japan, and they only want [the roe of] females,'' Martin says. ''About half of the fish caught are males, and they're just dumped at sea or in the harbors. At a time when you're trying to rebuild fish stocks, to be overfishing capelin stocks is sheer madness.''
Debate continues over the capelin. But nearly everyone seems to agree Canada's handling of the lumpfish is wrongheaded.
With scant scientific data to establish quotas, female lumpfish are being netted en masse and their roe -- a caviar-like product popular in Europe -- is removed. The rest of the fish is dumped back into the ocean.
''I think the real test of Canada's resolve on protecting its fish stocks is going to come when cod and other fish begin to come back a bit,'' says Donald Steele, a marine biologist at Memorial University in St. John's. ''There's going to be a lot of political pressure to dump the moratoriums and start fishing again. It's always easy to say there will be no fishing when there are no fish.''