Why Spain Confronts Canada in a Fish Fight

LIVING up to its notorious reputation of chasing fish around the globe, Spain is not about to let Canada shut down its operations off the Grand Banks.

In the past decade, Ireland, Namibia, Argentina, and Morocco have all shooed away Spanish trawlers, which have a kind of net that ''vacuums the ocean floor,'' according to Canadian Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin.

The fishing industry accounts for only 1 percent of Spain's annual gross domestic product of $483 billion. But the Spanish fleet of 19,000 boats, largest in the EU, is vital to the economy of certain Spanish regions like northwest Galicia, where 25 percent of the jobs are linked to fishing.

Like thousands of unemployed fishermen in Newfoundland, Spanish fishermen are being squeezed by declining stocks. ''We don't want to stop fishing,'' said Capt. Jose Rodriguez, whose boat earlier this week was involved in a game of cat and mouse with the Canadian vessels.

Clustered around a Spanish Navy patrol vessel for protection, 17 Spanish trawlers are under orders from their owners to fish for turbot whenever they can, as long as they do not get caught by the Canadian vessels.

Canada this month arrested one Spanish fishing boat, later released on bond, and cut the nets of another, all in international seas beyond Canada's 200-mile territorial waters.

Mr. Tobin, holding a palm-sized turbot that he says he was too young to die, insists the dispute is strictly about protecting fish.

But Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez counters that Canada is using fish conservation as a smokescreen to grab a bigger share of the turbot market.

The issue also tests the European Union's unity in a crisis. It is showing cracks since Britain refused this week to sign an EU note condemning Canada, which provoked immediate criticism from EU member Spain.

In Spain, turbot is just the latest problem for Mr. Gonzalez's embattled Socialist government, fighting corruption charges and a troubled economy with unemployment at nearly 24 percent, highest in the EU. After 12 years in power, polls predict the Socialists will take a drubbing in municipal elections in May.

Madrid is portraying Canada's actions as high-seas ''piracy'' and this week filed a complaint at the United Nations' International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The EU takes a similar tack, saying that its members Spain and Portugal are fishing legally in international waters, under an agreement of the North Atlantic Fishers Organization, of which Canada is also a party.

But Canada has hammered away at Spain's record of overfishing, and even Spanish Foreign Minister Javier Solana last week reminded Spanish fishermen to strictly follow rules on fish quotas and size. ''The Spanish fleet is not respecting fish stocks and the environment,'' said Assumpta Gwal of Greenpeace Espana.

That reality has added fresh urgency to the talks this week between Canada and the EU in Brussels on how to split up NAFO's 1995 quota of 27,000 tons of turbot.

Reports from Brussels yesterday indicated there could be a deal by this weekend. Spain's leading newspaper, El Pais, reported that Canada and the EU may agree to share the turbot quota more equitably.

It could be a prelude to even tougher bargaining on fishing rights worldwide. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that the world's fish appetite next century will require a boost in production from fish farms.

Meanwhile, Madrid is keeping pressure on Ottawa: Starting tomorrow, Canadians who visit Spain will have to obtain a visa.

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