Closeup

Who rules the waves?

A 200-mile limit is easier to impose than enforce

Robert Miller February 7 1977
Closeup

Who rules the waves?

A 200-mile limit is easier to impose than enforce

Robert Miller February 7 1977

Who rules the waves?

Closeup

The Sea

A 200-mile limit is easier to impose than enforce

Robert Miller

The small plaque on the office wall is utterly out of character: “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.” There is so little time for jokes in the working day of Doug Boyle that the plaque must be for the benefit of others—perhaps for errant junior officers who have been hauled, quavering, onto the admiral’s government issue carpet. Vice Admiral Douglas M. Boyle, commander of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Maritime Command and the country’s top seagoing officer, is known throughout the fleet for his tongue-lashings. At 53, he has a lifetime in the navy behind him and is now peering gloomily into the future. As a result, he is becoming famous on civvy street for lectures of another kind, ones designed to alert a drowsing Canadian public to the malevolent intentions of the Soviet Union. Boyle’s lectures—to service clubs and university groups—may be regarded by skeptics as part of his ceaseless campaign for a more generous navy budget. But he seems sincere in his pessimism about the prospects for an enduring peace and goes so far as to say that he is “convinced that 1980 will be the year” when the Russians attack the West. He says this in a matter-of-fact tone that is more than a little scary, because Boyle is no Strangelove. As a professional sailor, his days are taken up with concerns at least as serious as mid-ocean collisions: the breathtaking growth of Russian naval power, an aging Canadian fleet of destroyers, a chronic manpower and money shortage, recalcitrant Ottawa bureaucrats, and the day-to-day worries of running a 14,000-man navy on two coasts. More recently, if a trifle incongruously, the admiral’s concern has been fish: codfish, redfish, halibut, silver hake, salmon, even squid—the rapidly diminishing bounty of the seas around us.

When Canada’s unilaterally declared 200-mile “economic zone”—wherein Ottawa claims the right to manage all offshore resources, including fish—came into effect New Year’s Day, the bulk of the chore of enforcing it landed on Boyle’s tidy desk at Halifax’s Maritime Command headquarters. His assignment, which he carefully describes as supportive to the efforts of civilian personnel, involves the use of military aircraft for offshore surveillance and warships for enforcement. The objective: to make certain that foreign and

Canadian fishermen do not cheat on the rules, regulations and quotas that Ottawa has laid down. For its part, Ottawa’s longterm aim is to protect, and help rebuild, stocks of such species as cod, halibut and redfish, which have been seriously threatened by overfishing—most notably by the brutally efficient Soviet and Japanese fleets, but also by Canadians.

Enforcement is a big job, if only because, as Nova Scotian fishermen like to say, “she’s a big ocean to swallow,” and Boyle’s resources are limited. He has 12 destroyers, including three on the Pacific coast, plus 18 ancient Tracker aircraft—to cover thousands of square miles of ocean and monitor the activities of thousands of vessels. It is also a delicate job. To back up its new offshore policy, Canada must display muscle, but dreads the thought of using any. No one wants, or even seriously expects, a fishing dispute to escalate to the point of shooting. The cautionary lesson of Britain and Iceland and their comic-opera—and sometimes violent—Cod War has been duly noted both in Ottawa and at Maritime Command.

Boyle and the military do not have sole responsibility for enforcing Fisheries Minister Romeo LeBlanc’s “economic zone” (broadly speaking, the waters up to 230 statute miles—or 200 nautical miles—off Canada’s shoreline). The fisheries and marine service of Environment Canada has its own coastal patrol vessels, and the Canadian Coast Guard, under the Ministry of Transport, is also helping. But it is the admiral’s destroyers that have the capability—in the form of firepower—of carrying out arrests on the high seas.

Boyle sketches a confrontation scenario. “Say one of the Trackers spots an illegal trawler fishing in the zone. Perhaps a Russian. We send a destroyer to investigate. Suppose he turns and runs. I can catch him, of course. But suppose he refuses to stand to and accept a boarding party. What are my options? I can fire a shot across his bow, and, if he still refuses to stop, I can come alongside him and warn him that in, say, 10 minutes I’m going to put a shot into his fo’c’sle, either above or below the waterline ...” Boyle pauses, then adds softly: “But I doubt we’d do that. I very much doubt we’d do that.” Ottawa and the admiral both know that such a collision at sea can ruin more than your day; it could shipwreck diplomatic relations, and damage national credibility, as well as Canada’s overall 200-mile strategy.

Instead of military intimidation, Ottawa is relying on judicial authority to ensure compliance with the new regulations. Under them, fines up to $25,000 and jail terms of up to two years can be meted out to skippers convicted in Canadian courts of fishing without a Canadian license. An even greater deterrent, perhaps, is the authority claimed by Canada to cancel all fishing privileges for nations whose vessels are found to be in violation. Given the importance of the Canadian fishery to foreign

countries, the consensus was that Ottawa’s strategy will work. Certainly, it got off to a promising start during the first fortnight of the 200-mile limit, with more than 100 foreign vessels—all licensed—working inside the zone. Intensive patrols did not detect a single violation.

On other fronts, the 200-mile initiative has been running into heavy weather. Canada’s claims were being disputed on both the east and west coasts by the United States, which will begin enforcing its own 200-mile limit this spring. France, which also claims 200 miles, was insisting that the postage-stamp islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland, gave it control of large areas of ocean claimed by Canada. There was no firm agreement between Ottawa and Denmark on the boundary off Greenland. Ottawa was with-

holding publication of its Arctic zone, where it was bound to run into difficulties with Moscow. And many Canadian fishermen, especially the Nova Scotians, were skeptical about the usefulness of the new regulations and quotas, and infuriated by their assigned fishing areas.

Nevertheless, it was steady as she goes for LeBlanc and his fisheries experts. Certainly the government’s stated objective of saving the Canadian fishing industry is a worthy one. More than 55,000 Canadians earn their living by fishing, while another 22,000 work at processing and marketing the catch. The industry is worth roughly a billion dollars annually to the Canadian

economy—half of that in exports. In Canada’s Atlantic region, three communities in four have some connection with fishing and 250,000 Canadians have no alternative economic base, save unemployment insurance and other forms of government aid. Valuable as the west coast fishery is, it is a comparatively minor sector in British Columbia’s resource-rich economy. But fishing is of towering importance on the east coast, and it is there that the bulk of foreign trawlers operate and where fish stocks have been most seriously depleted. Accordingly, the lion’s share of surveillance and patrolling will be done out of Halifax and St. John’s rather than from Vancouver. Dr. Glen Geen, the director-general of fisheries in BC, reports that stock depletion is nowhere near as serious a problem for him as for his eastern counterparts. “Yes, there’s a good resource here,” he says, “and we are determined to protect it. But what we really must do is make certain we don’t get into the same situation they’ve got on the east coast, where there are too many boats and really nobody makes a very good living.”

To protect the long-term livelihood of east coast fishermen, Ottawa has decreed quotas for 1977 that will severely bite into the foreign fleets’ catch. Total allowable catches for all species have been reduced from 956,600 metric tons to 668,500. Despite the grumbles by east coast fishermen, Canada’s share of this total will rise

slightly, from 336,000 to 339,600 metric tons, which means roughly a 47% reduction for foreign fishermen working in Canadian waters. The $12 million Ottawa will spend this year on surveillance will be used not only to seek out unlicensed vessels, but also to watch for unscrupulous crews that exceed their limits. Douglas Johnston, director-general of fisheries for the Maritime region, says there is no doubt that lawbreakers will be punished. Commenting on Boyle’s confrontation scenario, Johnston is, if anything, more hawkish than the admiral. He cites an episode in late 1976, in which a Cuban vessel was found fishing inside the old 12-mile limit. Realizing she had been spotted, the Cuban vessel turned and ran. Meanwhile, Boyle had dispatched a destroyer, which caught the Cuban vessel, the Playa Colorado, in international waters. Ultimately, the Cuban skipper consented to arrest and was escorted into Halifax, where he was convicted and fined $2,000. Says Johnston: “We ran into every obstacle we could on that one. First we had hot pursuit. Then they refused to come into port. We don’t want to start any wars, but we have to retain our credibility. We were quite prepared to put an armed party aboard that vessel.”

That kind of excitement occurs rarely, which is one reason why fishery patrols are not wildly popular among enlisted seamen, especially in winter. A destroyer may be at sea for 21 days, often just drifting among the trawlers. Usually, the sea is rough. “It can be bloody awful,” says Commander Ed Kelly, skipper of the destroyer Assiniboine. One example: a year ago a huge wave broke over Assiniboine’s bow and stove in the steel housing around her three-inch forward gun. While on fisheries patrol, destroyer crews—an average of 200 men per ship—go through routine training exercises as well as fisheries work, with off-duty hours spent mainly trying to sleep in narrow bunks or wandering up and down “C” Deck, which runs the length of the ships. It can be monotonous and uncomfortable work with little to look forward to except returning to port or the occasional chance of accompanying a fisheries inspector aboard a foreign trawler and perhaps swapping a dog-eared copy of Playboy for a pint of Russian vodka.

If Boyle’s sailors are less than enchanted with their new duties, the opposite is true of Brigadier General Hy Carswell’s Maritime Air Group pilots. The men of 880 Tracker Squadron, flying out of CFB Shearwater, NS, claim they’ve never been happier. Major Ted Taylor, who has spent the past 18 years jockeying jets for a peacetime air force and who now finds himself piloting a plodding old propeller-driven plane up and down the east coast, explains: “It’s quite a thing for a military man these days to get up and look at himself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, turkey, I know what you’re going to do today; you’re going to do something valuable.’ ” Flying out of

Shearwater, Tor Bay, in St. John’s, Nfld., and Comox, BC, the Trackers prowl the principal fishing zones, photographing vessels and recording their activities. The three-man crews, provided with up-todate lists of fishing vessels licensed by Ottawa, radio in reports of suspected violators. Such reports are then followed up, either by destroyers or civilian patrol ships.

The assignment is almost a life after death for the venerable Grumann Tracker, originally acquired in 1956 to fly off the now-scrapped carrier Bonaventure. “Thank God we kept the Tracker,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Armstrong of CFB Shearwater. Carswell concurs, adding

that he intends to keep the planes flying through 1985 and perhaps even beyond. Ottawa has even approved a new avionics package for the Tracker, including a modem navigational system known as Omega. “The Tracker is a helluva plane for this kind of work,” says Carswell. “It’s tough. In fact, the pilots call it the Grumann Iron Works.” No wonder. Last year, a pilot misjudged a landing at Tor Bay, flew into the woods, carried on through the tops of spruce trees for 600 feet and flew right out again, eventually making a safe landing with only a few dents to show for the experience.

Canada and many other coastal nations

have followed an equally obstacle-strewn path toward their unilateral 200-mile limits. The interminable United Nations Law of the Sea conference had failed to come up with any substantial global agreement on offshore sovereignty. But during the past couple of years a consensus gradually emerged among coastal states that 200 miles is not an unreasonablejurisdiction to claim (although landlocked states understandably disagree). The 200-mile zone was ideally suited to Canada’s fishing program, since most of the major fishing banks on the Atlantic coast fall within the limit, while off the Pacific coast there is virtually no fishing, except for tuna, more than 50 miles out to sea.

But if fishery protection and management is important, it pales in significance beside the potential bonanza in undersea minerals—particularly nickel and oil. Indeed, the real possibility that oil may exist in commercial quantities off Nova Scotia is one reason why both Canada and the United States were locked into a dispute over the George’s Bank area southwest of Yarmouth, NS. In the meantime, Canada held off from licensing U.S. vessels, but allowed them traditional access to Canadian waters, pending a permanent agreement. A similar accommodation was made with French fishermen, until the St. Pierre and Miquelon quarrel could be sorted out.

Even when these disputes are settled, the gloomy fact will remain that Canadian fishermen are ill-equipped to realize the full potential of their nation’s extended ocean boundaries. For generations, New Brunswickers, Newfoundlanders and especially Nova Scotians have proved to be skilled and successful at sea, more than holding their own against the men from other nations who came to fish the North Atlantic. Even today, fisheries officials insist the Canadians are the most efficient fishermen in the world, when vessel size is taken into account. But now, economics and technology have combined to render the Canadians uncompetitive and inadequately prepared to go after the evermore-remote cod. While foreign fleets operate huge freezer-trawlers with ice-breaking capability, taking fish high up the Labrador coast in winter, the Canadians, lacking even one ship able to operate in heavy ice, must stay for much of the year far to the south, where fish have become increasingly scarce. Worse, the skills demanded by the new technology are largely unknown to the Canadian fishermen. “We don’t even know how to handle a ship in real ice,” says Kingsley Brown, Jr., a journalist-turned-film-maker who has spent time at sea.

Some Newfoundlanders are going to try to learn. Len Cowley, federal director-general of fisheries for the Newfoundland region, reports that a joint venture with the West Germans has been approved under which Newfoundlanders will go north aboard West German ships and learn the new tricks of an ancient trade. The fish

taken will be processed in Newfoundland plants for export to Europe. Nova Scotia is also seeking to arrange joint ventures with foreign fleets.

The most forceful illustration of the technology gap is to be found in a comparison of Russian and Canadian fishing operations in the North Atlantic. Huge fleets of Russian trawlers, some of them as large as 6,000 tons (Canada’s largest trawler: 750 tons) work in tight formation to sweep vast areas. “Nothing is wasted, not even the fish scales,” says Commander Kelly of the Assiniboine, who has inspected several Russian ships. Says a bosun from the destroyer Ottawa: “When I see the way those Russians operate, it really makes me sick. I mean, why can’t we operate the same way? Why don’t we have ships like theirs?”

The answer, according to Sandy MacLean, an economist and federal fisheries officer based in Halifax, is simply a matter of money. A modem freezer-trawler costs somewhere between $12 million and $15 million, and simply could not be operated at a profit. “The Soviets don’t look at costs the same way we do,” MacLean suggests. “They probably measure the cost of one unit of protein against the cost of another.” With the Soviet Union’s chronic agriculture failures, and the resultant scarcity of meat, Moscow simply needs the fish, no matter what it costs to catch them. (This is also one of the reasons why federal officials expect the Russians to comply with Canada’s new regulations.) MacLean’s observations on trawler economics are echoed by Len Cowley in St. John’s, who adds that another reason Western European countries can operate modern vessels at a profit is that their ships were built several years ago, before inflation drove costs through the roof.

Fishing industry executives estimate that Canada would need a fleet of at least a dozen freezer-trawlers in order to fish the North Atlantic efficiently. But such an investment—more than $150 million—is beyond the resources of even the biggest Canadian firms. William Morrow, president of National Sea Products Ltd. (1976

sales worldwide: $130 million) and a man whose family has been in fishing for generations—“My grandfather opened up the St. Lawrence Gulf fishery out of Lunenburg, in the 19th century”—says the cost of building a freezer-trawler fleet simply cannot be justified at the current, relatively low level of fish prices.

Like many Nova Scotians, Morrow is unhappy with the fishing areas the Bluenosers have been assigned this year. The Gulf of St. Lawrence, for example, a traditional fishing ground for “Novies,” has been declared off-limits to them. Newfoundland’s Len Cowley concedes that the Nova Scotians have been given the more remote and difficult areas, a federal decision viewed darkly in Halifax as pure politics. “That’s been the trouble,” says Morrow. “We’ve always had fishing politics, not fishing policy. It goes all the way back to the Maclean Royal Commission on Fisheries in 1928, when it was decided Nova Scotia could only operate three steam trawlers on the east coast.” That decision, intended to protect the interest of the Lunenburg “salt-bankers,” who worked the banks in small wooden vessels, meant, according to Morrow, that “while the rest of the world was modernizing its fishing operation, Canadians were marking time.”

Now, if Canada is to catch up, it looks increasingly as though it will do so only with the help of the very politicians so many fishermen mistrust. Whether federal subsidies for construction of a new Canadian fleet will be forthcoming is uncertain; the politicians and federal civil servants already have a netful of problems—diplomatic, regulatory and interprovincial—as a consequence of the 200-mile declaration. Nevertheless, Morrow and other fishermen agree that if the 200-mile limit, Ottawa’s new regulations, Don Jamieson’s impending treaties and Doug Boyle’s military patrols are to have any real meaning, Canada must prepare itself to exploit the ocean resource it seeks to manage, or simply give up the battle and hand it over to the foreigners who work our waters. Q