Heating up the cod war

CINDY BARRETT February 23 1987

Heating up the cod war

CINDY BARRETT February 23 1987

Heating up the cod war

The protest was blunt—and effective. After the French trawler Grande Hermine had unloaded just a quarter of its catch at a warehouse on the island of St-Pierre last week, warehouse manager Jean Beaupertuis locked the building’s big blue doors. Local businessmen had suggested to Beaupertuis that the action would dramatize the anger felt by residents of the French-ruled island. The reason: chronic overfishing in nearby waters by factory trawlers based in mainland France. And Beaupertuis, like most people on St-Pierre and its neighbor, Miquelon, was eager to take a stand against the growing threat to their vital fishing industry. Said Beaupertuis: “This is a question of life or death for St-Pierre.”

In Newfoundland, just 12 miles north of St-Pierre-Miquelon, anger at overfishing by French ships was running equally high. An agreement signed last month between France and Canada so incensed Premier Brian Peckford that he persuaded seven other premiers to hold a conference in Toronto to discuss it—one of the first times that the premiers had ever held an emergency meeting on a single issue. The premiers called on Ottawa to review the controversial accord that could eventually give French fishermen additional catches of northern cod.

In the House of Commons, opposition MPS directed a barrage of criticism at the Conservatives over the pact and the government’s failure to include Newfoundland in the final negotiations that produced it. Transport Minister John

Crosbie, a Newfoundlander, criticized his own government for being insensitive to his home province. Last week, in an attempt to mollify both Crosbie and the outraged East Coast fishing industry, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wrote an apologetic letter to Crosbie. In it, Mulroney assured the minister that in negotiations, “Canadian interests, not relations with France, are the paramount consideration.”

The Grande Hermine had been fishing in its favorite fishing zone— an area south of the islands that is claimed by both Canada and France. In return for additional catches in other areas, France agreed in the accord to discuss submitting the territorial dispute to international arbitration.

Meanwhile, the ship’s chagrined captain, Michel Auzou, challenged the widespread fear that cod stocks in the area are shrinking. “Five years ago it took 15 days to catch 100 tons,” said Auzou. “Now we can do it in seven or eight days.” Still, Grande Hermine set sail for the fishing grounds with about 350 tons of frozen filleted cod on boarddetermined to fill the remaining space in its hold. Said a frustrated Auzou: “What else can I do? I don’t have any cannons. This isn’t war.”

Although the islanders shared Newfoundland’s concerns about overfish-

ing, their reasons for wanting the Canada-France agreement renegotiated were quite different. Newfoundland objected to a clause that could give the French access to prime cod stocks outside the disputed zone between 1988 and 1991. But the people of St-PierreMiquelon did not object to the quotas set under the accord. Instead, they insisted that islanders be given a bigger share of the catch allotted to France. The islanders contend that because most fishing vessels from mainland

France will soon be obsolete, fleet owners are attempting to scoop up as much fish as they can before their ships must be scrapped—destroying the fishing grounds near St-Pierre-Miquelon in the process.

For its part, France will not agree to reopen negotiations unless Canada is prepared to give up more fish. “We can’t accept any reduction,” said Maurice Fourneron, an official of the French fisheries department.

Fourneron also confirmed that France would allow its vessels to take four times the annual Canadian-set quota of 6,400 tons of cod from the disputed zone.

Ottawa reacted swiftly to that threat. On Feb. 12 in the Commons, Crosbie said that France had been served official notice that its fishermen are catching more than they are allowed. If the French did not start to respect the quotas, he declared, they would be forbidden to dock at Canadian ports to refuel, buy supplies or

change crews. But that warning, said Newfoundland Liberal MP Brian Tobin, was hollow, because few French trawlers in fact need to use the province’s ports.

Crosbie also released Mulroney’s letter, written after the minister bitterly criticized the government’s handling of the final negotiation with France. In it, the Prime Minister promised that Crosbie would be involved in “all matters affecting the fishery of Newfoundland and Labrador,” and that provincial participation in negotiations “will be continuous and unbroken.”

Mulroney’s gesture to Crosbie—and to Newfoundland—was prompted in part

by the unusual meeting held by the eight premiers. At Peckford’s request, they had gathered to demonstrate provincial displeasure with how Ottawa negotiated the Canada-France fishing accord. To most observers, the very fact that seven premiers accepted his invitation—Quebec’s Robert Bourassa and British Columbia’s William Vander Zalm could not attend—signalled growing displeasure with the federal government.

Still, as the premiers assembled in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, most were clearly uncomfortable with their role in the dispute. “Every one of these guys knows that the federal government has treaty-making powers,” said an aide to one premier. “Why are eight premiers sitting as judge and jury on this deal? This is bizarre.” After 5V2 hours of discussion that ended at 1 a.m., Alberta’s Donald Getty admitted that he still did not fully understand the agreement—or Peckford’s objections to it. The premiers stopped short of supporting Peckford’s demand that Ottawa renounce the agreement; instead, they issued a six-

sentence statement chastising federal negotiators for not consulting more closely with Newfoundland officials and calling on Ottawa to review the agreement with the five affected provinces (Quebec and Atlantic Canada).

The meeting and the statement did not have the impact that Peckford had clearly hoped they would. “Quite frankly, let’s live in the real world here,” Premier John Buchanan told reporters back home in Nova Scotia. “The review process is not going to result in a so-called renegotiation of that agreement.” In Ottawa, Fisheries Minister Thomas Siddon echoed that remark. Siddon, scheduled to meet this

week with the fisheries ministers of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces to discuss the pact, said bluntly, “There is no chance the deal will be scrapped.” While the politicians continued to debate, another confrontation was brewing on St-Pierre. After successfully rebuffing Grande Hermine last week, the islanders were planning a second gesture of protest against French fishing policies. Early this week another trawler from mainland France, Le Dauphin, was expected to dock at the island to unload its fish. Warehouse manager Beaupertuis said it would receive the same treatment as Grande Hermine: he would accept only 100 tons of fish for storage, “not a pound more.” Paris issued no official response to the first action. But if the tiny islands continue to obstruct mainland fishermen, France may not be able to ignore the protest on St-Pierre.