On rolling seas just beyond Canada’s 200-mile jurisdictional limit last week, seven Newfoundland fishing trawlers confronted foreign ships at the edge of the Grand Banks. The protesters were trying to focus attention on what they claim is the European fleet’s ravaging of northern cod stocks. But the foreign fishermen greeted the protest with resentment and accused their Canadian critics of hypocrisy.
The daily routine rarely varies during the six months each year that the 65foot Spanish trawler Leirachan spends near the border of Canada’s 200-mile limit. Each day, the 25 crew members drag for fish, eat their meals and sleep—with only video games, cards and a few outdated Spanish newspapers and magazines to break the monotony. For chief mechanic Ricardo Parada, who lives in the fishing village of Marin on Spain’s Atlantic coast, the prolonged separation from his wife and three daughters is hard. “It is a difficult life to lead,” declared Parada, 45. And the trawlerman’s life has become more difficult since he began fishing 25 years ago, he told Maclean’s last week while the Leirachan was undergoing repairs in St-Pierre, the tiny French island 12 miles from Newfoundland’s southern coast. In the past, Spanish trawlers easily filled their holds during their annual voyage to the Grand Banks. “Now,” said Parada, “you have to work a lot harder to make the same amount of money.”
That is a problem common to most Atlantic fishermen—no matter which flag they fly. In recent years, cod catches off Europe’s Atlantic
coast have fallen as dramatically as the harvest from the Grand Banks. “Newfoundland fishermen’s problems are no worse than those facing most other foreign fleets,” explained Jaime Otero, 33, the Leirachan’s captain. For most Europeans, Canadian overfishing is largely responsible for the decline of cod stocks. But rather than accept the blame, the foreign fishermen say, Canadians turn their anger against members of the European fleets, who consider their historic claims to rights on the Grand Banks to be as strong as Canada’s own.
In 1977, Canada extended its territorial waters from 100 to 200 miles, taking control of the richest fishing grounds on the Grand Banks and gradually eliminating fishing by overseas fleets inside the new boundary. As well, in 1986 Canada closed its ports to European Community fishing vessels. And last week’s confrontation in the battle over dwindling fish stocks, say many Spanish fishermen, is another step in Canada’s relentless campaign to drive European ships out of grounds that they have been fishing since the 15th century. Declared Otero: “Canada wants to take control of the entire continental shelf. That is unacceptable.”
Claims and counterclaims about overfishing underlie the controversy. For one thing, Ottawa asserts that in 1991 European Community ships operating on the Grand Banks took
42.000 tons of cod, far exceeding their quota of
27.000 tons. But the Europeans say that Canadian claims about foreign overfishing are undercut by the fact that, of all the northern cod caught in the Grand Banks area, Canada takes
fully 75 per cent. Declared Louis Hardy, the main St-Pierre provisioner for Spanish trawlers: “Blaming foreign fishing is a smoke screen.”
Aboard the Leirachan, which has been fishing for halibut, crew members reacted to the latest confrontation with confusion—and some anger. “I don’t understand the Canadian government,” Otero said while sitting in the ship’s officers’ lounge. The captain, a bachelor from the village of Pontevedra in northwestern Spain, added: “We’re not here to anger the Newfoundlanders. We are here to fish and to make a living.”
A normal workday on board the Leirachan follows a rarely broken pattern: crew members drag-fish during four-hour shifts, then spend 30 minutes sorting the catch before storing it in freezer containers. Because the ship is well provisioned, shore leaves in St-Pierre are rare. Once ashore, most trawlermen go to the local post office to use the public phones to call their families. For entertainment, they frequent the local bars and nightclubs.
For now, most members of the Leirachan’s crew seem unconcerned with Canadian complaints. Said Parada: “Canada cannot take international law into its own hands.” A more immediate concern, the foreigners say, is catching enough fish to cover the costs of the voyage. While the trawlermen have a guaranteed monthly salary of $1,000—Otero said that it would be difficult to find such a wellpaying job in Spain—catches have been so sparse that it will be difficult for the ship’s Spanish owner to break even on the trip. In the end, European and Canadian fishermen clearly face the same dilemma: unless the cod return to the Grand Banks, there will be nothing worth fighting over.
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