CANADA has entered a new phase in its fish war with Spain and the European Union -- trying to compromise at the bargaining table while promising to begin cutting Spanish nets.
Defying a Canadian warning to stay away, at least 10 Spanish fishing boats last week reentered a sensitive area just beyond Canada's 200-mile territorial limit under the protection of a Spanish gunboat.
Canada reportedly sent patrol boats with net-cutting gear nearer to the Spanish vessels over the weekend and has at least one and possibly more warships in the vicinity.
The Spanish boats returned after having pulled back from those waters following the March 9 arrest by Canada of a Spanish fishing trawler, the Estai.
The ship and its crew were escorted by Canadian gunboats back to St. John's, Newfoundland, where the captain was charged under Canadian law with overfishing turbot, one of the area's last commercial fish stocks.
A stab at diplomacy
But now that warships have squared off, Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin says Canada will give diplomacy a chance rather than risk a violent confrontation.
Still, Mr. Tobin unveiled on Thursday a computer diagram of a cable-cutting device that will slice the nets of the Spanish boats. The net cutter, which rides below the water's surface, is pulled behind a Canadian ship across the wake of a foreign trawler. It would snag the net's cable and with its sharp edge, cut it, sending fish and net to the bottom.
''It's the equivalent to having someone take the tires off your car,'' Tobin told reporters. ''You're not going very far without them.''
Even as Canada enters its net-cutting phase, it along with its European antagonists will attend today's opening of the fifth United Nations conference on straddling stocks -- species, like the turbot, that swim back and forth between national territorial waters and the high seas.
Such stocks are vulnerable to both national and international fishing fleets and have become endangered worldwide.
Coastal countries like Canada are set to argue for binding international laws to protect these species from being wiped out on the high seas by fishing fleets not abiding by international quotas and standards.
Canada's seizure of the Estai may appear prominently at the conference in its push for such laws.
But environmentalists say Canada has its own bad record of overfishing and -- unlike even the US -- is unwilling to apply on the high seas those laws that it is lobbying for.
''It's not that we do not want strict rules or standards inside our waters -- it's a question of having them imposed by those who fish outside our waters,'' says Paul Lapointe, Canada's ambassador for fisheries conservation, who will represent Canada's interests in New York this week.
''We want to find a formula that satisfies conservationists,'' he says, ''but we're not about to erode the [territorial jurisdiction over waters up to 200 miles from its shores that] Canada and other coastal nations obtained under the law of the sea convention.''