Reigniting the "fish war" with the European Union, Canadian patrol vessels Sunday chased Spanish trawlers out of disputed fishing grounds in the North Atlantic and cut loose the net of one boat, according to Fisheries and Oceans Minister Brian Tobin.
The latest incident came one day after negotiators meeting in Vancouver failed to resolve a disagreement over turbot fishing in waters just beyond Canada's 200-mile limit off Newfoundland.
Arriving in New York from Ottawa for a United Nations conference on migrating fish stocks, Tobin told reporters that a Canadian coast guard ship used a device installed just last week to sever the cables securing the net of the trawler Pescamaro Uno. The action sent the net to the ocean's bottom and released its catch.
Earlier in the day, as many as 10 Spanish boats fled the fishing grounds after Canadian inspectors demanded to board one and were rebuffed, Tobin said. There was a 40- to 45-minute chase before the Canadian ships broke off the pursuit in heavy fog, he said.
Sunday's confrontations came on the eve of the U.N. conference dealing with fish such as turbot, also known as Greenland halibut. Tobin plans to argue at the conference for tough international rules on fishing conservation backed by frequent inspection and enforcement. But his government's brash tactics are likely to spark additional conflict with representatives of the 15-nation European Union, which includes Spain.
On March 9, Canadian patrol boats seized the Spanish trawler Estai in international waters after firing four bursts of machine-gun fire across its bow. The Estai was escorted into harbor at St. John's, Newfoundland, and held for a week until the owners posted a $355,000 bond. The captain was charged in a St. John's court with illegal fishing practices.
The EU responded by accusing Canada of piracy on the high seas and threatened economic reprisals. Spain hinted it might break diplomatic relations with Canada.
Tobin has accused the Spanish fishing fleet of plundering turbot and other dwindling species just outside Canada's territorial waters. Because many fish migrate between Canadian and international waters, Canada has taken the unprecedented view that it may enforce its fishing conservation laws beyond the accepted 200-mile limit.
The Europeans say they are fishing within their rights and that Canada is in clear violation of international law.
Canada had agreed to retreat from its aggressive tactics during the Vancouver talks. But when negotiations in British Columbia ended Saturday without agreement, Canada's enforcement vessels went back into action.
"If we wait, there will be no fish left," Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Sunday.
Canada's Atlantic fishing industry has been devastated in recent years as fish stocks, suffering from 15 years of overfishing and government mismanagement, declined sharply. As a result, Canada since 1991 has enforced a strong conservation policy on its East Coast fishermen.