Sun, March 27, 2005
Fish fight left a stench
CHRISTINA BLIZZARD LOOKS BACK 10 YEARS TO JUST HOW CLOSE PEACE-LOVING CANADA CAME TO A FULL-BLOWN FIREFIGHT DURING THE TURBOT WAR
By CHRISTINA BLIZZARD, TORONTO SUN
AH, EASTER. Once again our thoughts turn to chocolate bunnies and fluffy chicks -- and cute little baby turbot. Yes, just 10 years ago, on Easter weekend 1995, the eyes of the world were focused on an East Coast fish fight that pitted a hodge-podge of Canadian boats against a veritable Spanish armada.
A new book reveals just how close this country was to a full-blown firefight with Spain. Ontario's Lt.-Gov. James Bartleman was a top diplomatic adviser to then prime minister Jean Chretien from 1994 to '98 and played a key part in the 1995 Turbot War.
"For the first time in its peacetime history, Canada would resort to force to impose its will, rather than use diplomacy to settle a dispute," Bartleman explains in his new book, Rollercoaster (McClelland & Stewart).
We were "within hours" of a high-seas conflict off the Grand Banks, he writes. Canada, the world's No. 1 Boy Scout, became the unlikely armed aggressor in a game of gunboat diplomacy.
At the time, there was widespread fear here that Spain and other European Union countries were destroying our East Coast commercial fishery. Paying no attention to quotas set by the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO), Spanish factory boats would park outside Canada's 320-km territorial limit and scoop up vast amounts of cod that had migrated from Canadian waters.
In 1992, the Canadian government placed a moratorium on fishing northern cod in its waters. With more than 30,000 fishermen and fish-plant workers unemployed and the feds pouring subsidies into the region, Canadians were in no mood to tolerate foreign boats filching our fish -- and not just cod, either.
In 1994, Ottawa passed Bill C-29, which amended the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act to assert Canadian jurisdiction over the continental shelf beyond the 320-km limit. It also authorized fisheries officials to use force to implement the measures.
NAFO had agreed to reduce the amount of turbot that could be taken in 1995 by 23,000 tons. The EU, however, allocated itself a higher turbot quota. Canada rejected that proposal and insisted that Spain and Portugal withdraw their fishing vessels from sensitive areas of the Grand Banks. Spain was accused of plundering the turbot supply, even illegally scooping up the youngest fish.
It all came to a head in March and April 1995, and culminated in a showdown that Easter weekend. The EU warned Canada not to apply Bill C-29 to any of its members, and believed Canada would comply.
"To the Europeans, or at least to a jaded minority, our country was also the quintessential civilized, postmodern nation that seemed to believe that war had gone out of style," Bartleman recalls.
No one thought Canada would go to war over baby turbot. How wrong they were.
When talks with the EU went nowhere, Canada moved to arrest a 65-metre Spanish fishing trawler, the Estai. An RCMP team and 42 fisheries protection officers were dispatched in two patrol boats, along with a coast guard vessel. Crew members manned 50-calibre machine-guns on the boats.
On March 9, 1995, the ships gave chase to the Estai. Bartleman was at the table in the "war room" when the order was given to fire warning shots across the Estai's bow. If the Spanish boat didn't stop, the Canadians were authorized to shoot out its propeller -- although Bartleman notes he worried about the accuracy of the gunners and how they could guarantee that only the propeller was hit.
Spanish military officials had already warned the Canadian military that they had been authorized to use "deadly force" -- meaning they were obliged to open fire to protect their civilian ships. Canadian forces were given similar orders.
"I was just absolutely sure we were just heading towards a conflict in which I was certain people were going to die," Bartleman said in an interview last week.
"People thought it was like something on television and it wouldn't be real blood and real tears, and thank God at the last minute we managed to avoid that."
After four bursts of machine-gun fire, the Estai came to a stop. The boat was seized and escorted to St. John's, Nfld., where it was greeted by a jeering crowd.
On March 29, Brian Tobin, then fisheries ministers (and later Newfoundland premier), pulled off a major public relations coup when he posed on a barge on the East River in New York, in front of the United Nations, with a frozen baby turbot and a net from the Estai -- which clearly showed Spain was violating NAFO rules and using a mesh that would scoop up even the smallest fish.
"No baby fish can escape that monstrosity," Tobin declared, before uttering the most memorable quote of the time:
"We're down, finally, to one last lonely, unloved, unattractive turbot, clinging on by its fingernails to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, saying, 'Someone reach out and save me in this 11th hour as I'm about to go down to extinction.' "
A week later in Madrid, a furious crowd pelted the Canadian Embassy with eggs. That prompted The Toronto Sun front-page headline: "Now they're killing baby chickens!"
But the battle to win the hearts and minds of the world was tough. Canada was alone in the Turbot War. Its traditional allies, the U.S. and the U.K., both indicated they felt international law was on the side of the Spanish.
Bartleman's book relates the cloak-and-dagger-like atmosphere as diplomatic efforts went down to the wire. An informant he dubs "Deep Throat" was "right inside the EU daily briefings, which meant that we knew that the diplomatic process was working and that prevented hotheads from pushing it to the extreme," he told me.
Shortly before Easter, a deal to resolve the conflict fell through and Canada prepared to make another high-seas arrest. Officials here sent word to their Spanish counterparts that we were prepared to use deadly force.
On Easter Saturday, April 15, "Deep Throat" called Bartleman to say EU ambassadors had met in an emergency meeting throughout the night. Spain had agreed to a settlement, and a potentially deadly conflict was averted.
A Canadian-based Spanish journalist says the 10th anniversary means the Turbot War is again making headlines in the northern province of Galicia, where the fishing fleet is based.
"It will be always in the back of the memory for many people," said Julio Cesar Rivas, Canadian correspondent for the Spanish national news agency EFE. Although he recalls people in Spain demanding their government send an aircraft carrier, destroyers and a submarine to fight Canada at the time, he believes the bad blood is now largely forgotten.
He points out that the company that owns the Estai recently went to federal court in Newfoundland claiming Canada's actions were illegal and they suffered economic damage -- but Canadian newspapers didn't even cover the story.
Bartleman said March and April 1995 marked "a tremendous aberration in Canadian foreign policy."
"At the same time we were out preaching the benefits of 'soft power' and telling other countries to use negotiation, we were using force -- and the sad part of it is that force was working."