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The Turbot War

Chandrika SHARMA

12 / 1997

The turbot has traditionally not been a widely consumed fish. Turbot catches increased after the 1980s more because fishers had little else left to harvest. However, data collected subsequently by Canadian fisheries scientists showed a precipitous decline even in turbot biomass all over the traditional fishing grounds, which lay mostly within Canada’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)limit. There were several possible reasons for the decline in stocks. Russian factory trawlers operating inside Canadian waters under joint-venture agreements had targeted the spawning aggregations of turbot in deep waters off Baffin Island. Another possibility was that fish had migrated to warmer waters in the high seas- outside of Canada’s EEZ to the nose of the Grand Banks- in response to recent changes in ocean temperature, and into the deep-water trawls of the Spanish fleets active in this region. In the high seas, until 1980, the turbot fishery was unregulated and catches were not substantial. However, with the entry of the Spanish fishing fleet, the estimated catch rose from 7,600 tonnes in 1989 to close to 60,000 tonnes in 1994. The rise in catches was facilitated by the use of destructive bottom-trawling technology, combined with sophisticated fish-finding abilities and skilled crew. Canadian research vessels observing the high sea fishery also recorded the use of destructive small-mesh trawl nets. For the Spanish distant-water fleet the stakes in the turbot fishery of the Grand Banks were high. After being expelled from Namibian waters, and suffering greatly from the worldwide depletion of fishery resources, the fleet was turning to the few, still-open fishing grounds. Spain also had a vigorous domestic market for fish.In the face of clear evidence of declining turbot stocks, the Canadian government slashed quotas for domestic fishers and lobbied the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO)to introduce quotas for turbot.In February 1995, NAFO members agreed to a total allowable catch of 27,000 tonnes, with only 3,400 tonnes being apportioned to the EU, whose boats took 60,000 tonnes in 1994. The EU promptly contested this allocation, awarding themselves 18,630 tonnes instead. Meanwhile, in a unilateral action, the government of Canada amended their Coastal Fisheries Protection Act, granting themselves authority to board, and if necessary, arrest not just flag-of-convenience vessels but also Spanish and Portuguese vessels deemed to be fishing in violation of NAFO regulations. This move has to be seen against the background of earlier complaints lodged by the Canadians with the EU, protesting the overfishing of turbot by the EU fleet- complaints against which little action was taken. The enactment of the Act set the stage for the fish war. On 9 March 1995, the Spanish vessel, Estai, was apprehended and its captain arrested. In the investigation which followed, several violations by the vessel were observed, including under-reporting of catches, catches of by-catch species under moratorium, catches of immature turbot and plaice, and the use of fishing nets with illegal mesh size. For the government of Canada the timing of this action was opportune. Finding a common external enemy helped divert attention from the mismanagement of its own fisheries and the large-scale unemployment in fishing communities. It was also a perfect media opportunity to influence the next session of the United Nations Conference on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks.

Palabras claves

pesca, conflicto entre estados

, Europa, Canadá


The arrest of the Estai received much media attention. It also brought out the loopholes in international law related to the management and conservation of fish stocks in the high seas. The Canadians, in projecting themselves as acting in the interests of conservation, tried to justify their unilateral action in apprehending the vessel. However, the action of the government may as well have been motivated by a desire to divert attention from the problems within its own fisheries and fishing communities, as for instance, the fact that nearly 40,000 people had been affected by the collapse of 14 important groundfish stocks on the Atlantic coast. The real challenge for the Canadian government is to prove its commitment to conserve and manage fish stocks by improving the management of its own fisheries and the condition of its fishing communities. The Estai incident highlights, more than anything else, the need for governments to rise above unilateralism and their own narrow, vested interests, and to work together towards the common cause of conservation and management of fish stocks.


Artículos y dossiers

NOVACZEK, Irène, The poor, lonely, homely turbot in. Samudra Report, 1995/04, 12

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