Skip to content

“Someone, reach out and save me in this eleventh hour”: Brian Tobin and the Turbot War

December 29, 2021

[This article was originally published in the Winter 2021/2022 Edition of the Union Forum Magazine, written by Dwan Street, FFAW-Unifor Staff Representative.]

On the heels of the northern cod moratorium in 1992, fueled by the role foreign trawlers had played in depleting the cod stock, concerns began to be raised that European factory trawlers were overfishing turbot on the Grand Banks. In the absence of cod, turbot had become a species seen as a bright spot that could assist in economic recovery for those who had lost their livelihood when the cod fishery closed.

With the establishment of the 200-mile limit and subsequent economic control of the seas within this limit granted to the home country, foreign trawlers began increasing their fishing effort, including turbot, just outside the limit on the lucrative Grand Banks.

Turbot had not yet been managed under catch limits until 1994. Up to that point Spanish trawlers had fished turbot without abandon on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks. Recognizing the migration of turbot into deep waters at certain points of the year, Canada said turbot had moved to deeper waters outside of the 200-mile limit and that quotas should be set according to their historical fishing patterns within the limit; Spain and Portugal, however, claimed that since they were the first to explore this stock they should have historical attachment and be granted 75% of the quota.

From 1990 to 1994 catches rose from 27,000t to 62,000t.

In 1994 NAFO held its annual meeting in Nova Scotia where Canada requested a 15,000t quota and the European Union, representing Spain and Portugal, requested 40,000t. NAFO compromised at 27,000t. The distribution key for all parties was then decided upon in Brussels on January 30-February 1, 1995.

Subsequently, Canada recorded numerous violations of the foreign fleet, including fishing inside the 200-mile limit as well as using illegal fishing gear to harvest the stock. Still reeling from the moratorium and economic devastation of the northern cod fishery, Canadian harvesters and officials were concerned the turbot stock would head in the same direction if action was not taken.

A NAFO regulation existed that required nations to inspect their vessels regularly, and observer coverage and VMS were also required. Yet, European vessels were not in compliance. Then-Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Newfoundland and Labrador’s own Brian Tobin, began heated discussions with European officials around these issues, particularly the use of illegal nets by foreign fleets while fishing for turbot. Tobin began doing his legal homework around Canada’s power to seize a foreign vessel if it was found to not be in compliance.

Tobin’s last straw was when both Canada and Europe both claimed 75% of the quota should be allocated to their respective countries but this was rejected by the EU Council who set their TAC at 18,630t, an amount that equalled 69% of the available allocation. He had attempted to extend the Canadian jurisdiction of the waters to include the entire Grand Banks which was rejected by the Prime Minister, and instead Tobin and the cabinet declared the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act regulations would be broadened as of March 6, 1995 to make it illegal for Spain and Portugal to fish turbot on the nose and tail. This move was condemned by the EU.

The Canadian government was torn as some agreed with the EU that enforcing anything outside of 200 miles was unlawful. Tobin, however, was persuasive and eventually garnered the support he required.

All of this came to a head in early 1995.

On March 9 a patrolling aircraft spotted a foreign trawler outside the 200-mile limit. The Cape Roger, Leonard J. Cowley and Sir Wilfred Grenfell pursued the vessel.

The vessel in question was the Estai, a trawler fishing under the Spanish flag at 220 miles off the Canadian coast in international waters. The vessel cut the illegal weighted trawl they were using to harvest turbot and fled. Canadian vessels kept chase, with one vessel using high powered water cannons to fend off other foreign vessels attempting to hamper the pursuit and with the Cape Roger firing three 50-calibre machine-gun warning shots over the bow of the Estai.

Finally, the vessel was boarded by DFO and the RCMP. The crew were arrested, vessel seized, and charges processed against the crew. The EU insisted the case be heard at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. The Spanish Navy then sent a vessel to protect its other fishing vessels.

As the legal battle played out, Tobin had DFO contract a vessel to drag for and retrieve the illegal trawl, consisting of a liner making the mesh smaller and thus illegal, that the crew of the Estai had cut loose. Tobin then scheduled a press conference in New York City, just outside the United Nations headquarters, where the trawl and undersized turbot were displayed for all to see, the net hanging from a crane – an image that is still unforgettable to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who navigated through this troubled time in our fishery.

As he spoke passionately in front of the display, Tobin declared, “We are down to the last, lonely, unloved, unattractive little turbot, clinging by its fingernails to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, saying ‘Someone, reach out and save me in this eleventh hour as I’m about to go down to extinction’.”

Canada gained allies in the fight, with Canadian flags hanging from houses and fishing vessels in Britain and Canada’s gumption in arresting the Estai being applauded across the Atlantic.

Spain continued to assert that Canada did not have the right to arrest the trawler in international waters. The International Court of Justice rejected Spain’s claims and the United Kingdom denied a request by the EU to propose sanctions on Canada. Spain, in the meantime, posted a $500,000 bond and the vessel was returned to Spain with the crew released. Tobin demanded all foreign fishing activity come to a halt. The Spanish fleet did leave for a short while but returned when talks at the G7 conference failed. As a result, Spain also implemented visa requirements for Canadians visiting the country and deported Canadian expats living in Spain at the time.

Canadian ships continued to protect our fishery with nets being cut from the Portuguese trawler Pescamero Uno. The Spanish Navy deployed another vessel, and Canadian warships and planes were then directed to fire on Spanish trawlers if weapons were observed. The Spanish continued to demand Canada back down and continued to claim they were fishing in international waters, outside of Canada’s jurisdiction.

A deal was reached on April 5 though it was rejected by Spain – a move that prompted Canada to declare it would remove Spanish vessels with force. With pressure from the EU, Spain finally agreed on April 15.

As a result the $500,000 bond was returned to Spain, the order allowing the arrest of Spanish vessels was repealed and Canada accepted a reduction in its allocation of turbot. Observer coverage and VMS were then made permanent monitoring measures.

The Straddling Stocks Agreement was then signed in December 1995. However, the fallout of the Turbot War was not over. At the 2001 Helsinor meeting in Denmark, the EU began to move into a leadership position which worried the Canadian delegation. At this meeting Canada put depth restrictions for turbot fishing to a vote – and lost.

While the Turbot Wars were a turning point in Canadian fisheries management and a volatile time in our history, our fight with NAFO over management of our turbot resource is far from over – as harvesters fishing 2+3 turbot can attest. We must continue to fight for a fairer share of the resource off our shores and to relinquish management of 3K, where the resource is unequivocally fished within Canadian waters, into Canada’s hands.

The turbot wars amplified Brian Tobin’s profile in the political arena, and also established Canada as a force to be reckoned with on the international fisheries stage.