Of Fish and Politics

Standing alone in the world with the confidence of a mature nation, Canada asserted its will and protected the common good by force. It is attempting to prevent the demise of the Grand Banks fisheries off Newfoundland's coast.

Canada should be lauded and its guidance sought in renegotiating the United Nations' Law of the Sea Convention, which guarantees each nation exclusive economic rights 200 miles from its shore. The Convention needs to meet the exigencies of the modern, relentless threat of total fisheries extinction. Instead, Canada is ostracized and called a pirate. This is a lesson in how politics works.

The Grand Banks fisheries off the coast of Newfoundland have long been the world's richest supply of fish; today, they are a sad exemplar of the tragedy of the commons. In this tragedy, a shared resource is pillaged by those with access to it because, where individual and group incentives collide without coordination and enforcement, the individual incentive reigns supreme. Although all nations with rights to fish in the area have a group interest in sustaining the fishery, each individual nation has an incentive to overfish, so long as all others play by the rules. This dynamic produces a downward spiral that results in the destruction of the resource.

On March 3, two years after the Canadian government itself imposed a moratorium on cod fishing in the Grand Banks--at enormous cost in lost fisheries revenue and a massive re-education and assistance plan--the government called for a 60-day moratorium on turbot fishing while it dealt with a challenge to the European Union quota. That quota was 3,400 tons per year for EU boats. In the first two weeks of 1995, EU boats caught over 7,000 tons of turbot. Predictably, the European Union ignored Canada and continued to fish just outside of the 200-mile limit. The EU threatened to send warships to protect its interests. Diplomatic negotations were halted. And meanwhile, turbot go the way of other species: cod populations have been reduced by 99 per cent, pilchard and polar cod by 94 per cent, and haddock by more than 80 per cent since the mid-1970s.

On March 9, a team of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, or 'Mounties'--the Canadian F.B.I.) attempted to board the Spanish fishing trawler Estai. When the attempt failed, the Spanish cut their fishing nets and attempted to flee. After a four-hour chase, the Canadian patrol vessel sent a burst of machine-gunfire over the bow of the Estai. The boat was seized and turned toward New-foundland, where the skipper will be charged under Canadian conservation law and the crew flown home.


The EU called Canada's action "a lawless act against the sovereignty of a member state of the European Union." This is simply two-faced talk. Predictably, the Spanish played it up. Protests drew thousands of demonstrators carrying Canadian flags marred with a skull and crossbones, angrily calling the Canadians 'pirates.'

Spain has a well-established and notorious reputation for devastating other countries' fishing grounds. The EU has excluded Spain from some of its own fisheries; when Namibia won independence in 1990, one of its first acts as a nation was to kick out the greedy Spanish. Canadian officials discovered that the seized Spanish vessel had been fitted with a second bottom for tons of illicit catch, and that it possessed illegal secondary nets to trap protected species. Many sources inside the EU say privately that there is "a lot of admiration for what Canada did." But at the same time, these sources recognize the political reality: that Europe's public admonition of Canada is "a question of political principle that left the EU with no other option...To do otherwise would have been to disown Spain and the whole idea of a political union."

So Canada is left to stand alone in protecting one of the world's last fisheries, for the benefit of the international community and, perversely, against its opposition. Thank God that strong countries exist to protect against this type of myopic ravaging of natural resources. "Political unions" won't mean a damn thing when our global and moral community go bankrupt.

Patrick S. Chung's column appears on alternate Saturdays.