Fencing the World's Fishing Grounds


Last month the Canadian Coast Guard cut the nets of a Spanish trawler fishing just outside Canadian waters on the legendary Grand Banks. While the action was local, it foreshadows new controls of the world's ocean commons.

Canada timed the act to dramatize its efforts at preserving the threatened Grand Banks ecosystem, since next day the United Nations began debate on an international agreement to govern the world's declining fish stocks. (The Conference on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks was the fifth of six sessions generated by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The agreement for ratification by the nations will be completed next August.)

Canada's action did not occur in a vacuum. Since the time in 1977 that both the United States and Canada assumed control of marine resources in the waters within 200 miles of their coasts, the Canadians have contended with the fact that the Grand Banks extend a bit beyond 200 miles. Beyond the boundary lies a few-mile section to the south known as the Tail of the Bank, and a smaller section to the east called the Nose. Both appendages are in international waters. Foreign ships can fish in them without answering to Canadian law, regulated only by agreement. Thus Canada cannot manage the Banks as a complete ecosystem.

For centuries Grand Banks was one of the world's most abundant fishing grounds. But in the past decade overfishing (and possibly side effects of global warming and the halt of the seal hunt) have decimated the Banks' cod and flounder stocks.

Two years ago Canada in desperation halted fishing within the 200 miles of its undisputed jurisdiction. The sacrifice wiped out 50,000 Canadian jobs ashore and at sea. Following the closure, ships of other nations fishing the Nose and Tail went home, but the number of Spanish (and Portuguese) trawlers has increased. They fish a negotiated quota of turbot, the only stock remaining for the moment in commercial abundance.

At the United Nations conference, the European Union spokesman immediately denounced the Canadian net-cutting as "international piracy," while in Spain a wave of anti-Canadianism has erupted. Unfortunately, while nobody speaks of it, Spanish far-seas fishermen have a reputation for ignoring conservation practices -- even those agreed to -- if they affect the push to make a living.

A Spanish trawler that the Canadians arrested March 9 at its 200-mile border carried nets with smaller mesh than that agreed toby the European Union: nets that captured not only mature turbot but also the brood stock of any future generation. Even before the 1977 200-mile laws Spanish vessels fished recklessly in waters where their nets brought up tons of by-catch (much of it endangered species, all of it wasted) along with target fish. At the time I myself, from an adjacent ship, observed sickeningly heavy Spanish scupper disgorgement.

Pulitzer author William Warner in his 1983 book "Distant Water" tells of riding aboard a Spanish trawler when the fishermen themselves were disturbed by their own wasteful practices dictated by the owners.

"Too often Spanish pair trawlermen have seen their colleagues of other nations shake their fists in silence as their ships passed close in crowded waters, while their [scuppers] left their telltale wake of discarded flatfish, pollock, redfish and even the prized haddock. There is not one among the Terra's crew, in fact, who does not harbor the uneasy feeling that someday soon such practices will work to their prejudice."

Whether accurate or not, the Spaniards' high-seas fishing reputation for getting away with what they can has not improved.

One evening before the present closures I flew over the Grand Banks with an enforcement officer from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It was a routine unannounced observation flight from St. John's, in a small plane whose human legroom had been usurped by radar and camera equipment. Close outside the 200-mile line the radar showed blips. As we flew low the blips became rust-streaked ships, identifiable as trawlers by their high "gallows" (a support structure for raising heavy nets). Taut cables astern of most showed that they were towing nets.

During the flight we logged 24 ships, most with gear in the water, all of them in international waters but within five miles of the Canadian boundary. The count included eight Spanish ships, seven Portuguese, four Cubans and other assorted nationalities.

The pastels of late day settled over the water below. Visibility began to dim. The radar man noted a Spanish ship close to the line: "His heading's zero-one-zero. That's a good heading if you want to go inside the line." The plane made three passes in ZTC order to gather all the information possible in the waning light and then, with fuel near the safety margin for the hour-and-a-half return flight, we left. "Now it's night time and we're gone 'ome," said one of the Newfoundlanders aboard. "Lot of ocean there, b'ye."

The exasperated Canadians may be taking the rules into their own hands, but they've waited a long time, with hands tied, before doing it. In light of the U.N. conference, they are playing their local stand on the world stage. Like the harbinger of 200-mile jurisdictions -- the "cod wars" 30 ago when Iceland harassed British trawlers off its coasts to protect its native resource -- the Grand Banks showdown signals further necessary fencing of the world's fishing grounds.

William McCloskey has worked as a fisherman on Grand Banks and elsewhere. His novel "Highliners" about Alaskan fishermen has just been republished by Lyons & Burford.

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