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Doing Business : Canada Makes Waves With Fishing Restrictions : Faced with falling catches, officials seize foreign vessels in international waters and lobby for quotas to preserve turbot and other species.

October 18, 1994|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. JOHN'S, Canada — This has been a busy year for Canada's fish police.

Led by a youthful, pugnacious fisheries minister named Brian Tobin, Canada has fashioned a sort of gunboat diplomacy in pursuit of protecting its dwindling fish stocks.

The policy has pushed Canada into a worldwide leadership position on the conservation issue, but it has also brought the country into conflict with the United States on two coasts.

Canadian Coast Guard and Fisheries Department ships and planes now patrol the Atlantic beyond the country's 200-mile limit. Occasionally they seize foreign-flag boats--including U.S.-based vessels--they believe are poaching on Canadian fish, even when the vessels are in international waters.

In the Pacific Northwest, Ottawa and Washington failed to reach agreement on revised salmon quotas this summer, and Canada responded by levying steep new fees on American salmon fishermen passing through Canadian waters. When Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) complained, Tobin dismissed him as "a gnat."

But if Tobin, 39, sometimes seems to wave a privateer's cutlass in one hand, he carries the diplomat's briefcase in the other. He lobbies hard at the United Nations and other international forums for tougher restrictions on taking depleted fishing stocks--and not without success.

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In September, the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization, which sets regional fishing quotas for Canada, Europe and other North Atlantic nations, bowed to Canada's urgings and for the first time limited turbot catches.

There were suggestions that, behind the scenes, Tobin implied that Canada would take unilateral action if the international group did nothing.

"We've been compelled to be assertive, some would say aggressive, because the alternative is to, with our eyes wide open, preside over the destruction of the (fishing) resource," Tobin said in a recent interview.

His apocalyptic rhetoric and damn-the-torpedoes diplomatic style is founded in the near-collapse of Canada's Atlantic fishery, which has wrenched the soul out of his native province of Newfoundland and fissured the economy throughout Canada's East Coast.

In Canada's deteriorating fishing industry, and the country's thrashing attempts to save it, are lessons for the rest of the world. For, from the Bay of Biscay off France to the disputed Kuril Islands near Japan, fishermen are in conflict. In the United States, salmon fisheries in Washington and cod fisheries in New England have been closed.

Many conditions underlie the spiraling problem--environmental degradation, enhanced fishing technology, climatic changes, even an increase in the seal population. But it is perhaps most succinctly summed up by fisherman Lawrence (Laurie) Sullivan, speaking in the lilt typical of this part of Newfoundland: "There's too many boats and too few fish. That's the way I look at it."

According to a July report by the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit, international environmental research group based in Washington, the catch in every fishery in the world outside the Indian Ocean is in decline.

In three areas of the Atlantic and one in the Pacific, the harvest is down more than 30% since its peak year. Worldwide, the marine catch has dropped 5% since 1989.

The continued decline not only portends further conflicts among fishermen and governments, but increased unemployment in marine communities, higher prices for consumers, a disappearing source of low-cost protein in the Third World and the destruction of traditional fishing cultures, according to the report.

Many of these problems have already taken hold in Canada's Atlantic provinces, particularly in Newfoundland at the continent's eastern edge.

When Italian-born explorer John Cabot entered the waters near St. John's under the English flag in 1497, the cod schools were so thick his men had trouble rowing their longboats through them. By 1992, the fish were so few that Canada, in a desperate effort to preserve the species, declared a moratorium on cod fishing off Newfoundland's Grand Bank.

The province fell into an economic depression from which it has never recovered.

Estimates of unemployed fishermen and related workers run as high as 50,000 in Newfoundland and neighboring provinces. One in four Newfoundlanders is on welfare or unemployment.

The government has spent more than $1 billion in Canadian funds (about $730 million U.S.) on relief and compensation and promised $1.9 billion ($1.39 billion U.S.) more over the next five years.

If the fishery ever comes back here, it is estimated that there will only be enough work for half as many people as were employed in fishing, processing and related trades when the 1992 moratorium went into effect.

"You'd have to be overly optimistic to say the future of the overall industry is anything but bleak," said Earle McCurdy, president of the Fishermen, Food and Allied Workers Union here. "In the long haul, I can't see the amount of fish we had available in the late '80s again in my lifetime."

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