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The Turbot War

The View from Newfoundland

Chandrika SHARMA

12 / 1997

To understand the significance of the turbot dispute, it is important to understand the nature of Newfoundland society. For centuries the fishery has been the main employer and mainstay of its coastal communities, scattered along a 17,500-km coastline. Prior to the 1950s, groundfish stocks were exploited using only fixed gear. The advent of the distant-water factory-freezer trawler fleets from Europe introduced the bottom-trawling technology. The collapse of groundfish stocks in the 1990s did not take local fishers by surprise. For many years, fixed gear fishers had been warning about just such a decline in view of the unrestrained proliferation of the bottom-trawling technology. In 1988, quotas for the major groundfish stocks fished by Newfoundlanders- cod, flounder, turbot, redfish and others- were slightly over 500,000 tonnes. By 1994, these had dropped below 45,000 tonnes-a decline of over 90 per cent in just six years.The prognosis for the future of these stocks was not encouraging. A total of fourteen stocks were under moratorium, affecting nearly 40,000 Atlantic Canadians. Approximately 30,000 of these affected workers lived in Newfoundland. The impact on the Canadian fishery sector was severe. Dozens of fish plants were closed and hundreds of large and small vessels decommissioned or just left tied to the wharf.While Canadian fishers and fish-plant workers were forced to absorb the cutbacks and closures, European vessels just beyond the 200-mile limit actually increased their fishing effort, with complete disregard for quotas, mesh sizes and other fisheries management regulations.>From 1988 to 1994 the Europeans had quotas totalling 164,400 tonnes from NAFO, the international body responsible for managing the area of Canada’s continental shelf which lies beyond 200 miles. During that period, the EU reported catches as high as 851,600 tonnes. But according to estimates of the Canadian enforcement authorities, the Europeans actually caught much more. Little action was taken by NAFO to enforce regulations. Moreover, NAFO only had 10 per cent observer status, and provisions for reporting and enforcement were inadequate. It was against this background that the Canadian Government passed a law authorising itself to take enforcement action outside the 200-mile zone, an action which met with protest from the EU. The subsequent arrest of the Spanish vessel, Estai, by the Canadian authorities, disclosed, among other things, dual logbooks on board, a high percentage of undersized fish, a hidden hold containing 25 tonnes of American plaice- a stock under moratorium, and a net with undersized mesh.This action also led to a settlement under NAFO. The main features of this included 100 per cent observer coverage on vessels, 35 per cent satellite coverage, improved inspection, hailing and reporting of catches, and other measures intended to give the authorities the tools to enforce and police quotas, mesh sizes and other fisheries management regulations. Newfoundlanders saw this agreement as a major first step in managing straddling fish stocks. They saw in it the hope that the cutbacks they had endured may not have been totally in vain.

Palabras claves

pesca, conflicto entre estados, desempleo

, Europa, España, Canadá


Fishers from Newfoundland had already observed the impact of bottom trawling on their fish stocks. They were aware of the immense damage that can be wreaked by overfishing and the use of destructive technology. They had already suffered from the painful consequences of the collapse of their groundfish stocks. For them the actions of the Canadian government appeared justified. For years, while they were restricted by cutbacks and quota regulations, they had observed the same stocks being overfished in the high seas by European vessels using non-selective and destructive fishing methods. The `turbot war’ for them highlighted the need for compatible management measures for fish stocks, both within the EEZs of coastal states and on the high seas.


Artículos y dossiers

MC CURDY, Earle, Beyond quotas and mesh size in. Samudra Report, 1995/04, 12

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