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Before the negotiations on a future trade deal between the UK and Brussels even started, the French government made it clear to the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier that he had to push for stronger commitments on regulatory alignments and access to UK fishing waters in return for maintaining free trade. Ever since the 2016 EU referendum, French President Emmanuel Macron has been championing the bloc’s fisheries demands. In 2018, he suggested that if the UK was unwilling to compromise in negotiations on fishing, then talks on a wider trade deal would have been slow.
And in February, the Frenchman claimed he was willing to put up a fight over the issue.
Despite Mr Macron’s hardline stance, the UK insists any fishing agreement must be separate from the trade deal with access negotiated annually in a similar fashion to Norway’s agreement with the bloc.
Norway is an independent coastal state, with the rights and responsibilities under international law associated with that status. Stocks shared with the EU are managed through annual bilateral negotiations. Each autumn these talks set total allowable catches on the basis of scientific advice.
This contrasts starkly with the current position of the UK fishing industry within the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy – something the EU wants to maintain at all costs.
As negotiations on a future trade deal enter their final stage and tensions rise, unearthed reports shed light on what could ultimately happen if Britain leaves the bloc without a deal in place.
A ten-year controversy between Ottawa and Brussels, involving overfishing and fishing violations by EU vessels from Spain and Portugal in international waters outside Canada’s 200-mile limit, came to a head in 1995.
Fishing in those waters is managed by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO).
With scientists warning that turbot, the largest remaining commercial fish stock in the Northwest Atlantic, was overfished, NAFO established a total allowable catch and quotas for the 1995 fishing season.
However, responding to pressures from Spain and Portugal, the EU objected to its quota and adopted a much higher one, precipitating the “turbot war” with Canada, which saw Brussels ordering Spanish trawlers to use “deadly force”.
On March 9, 1995, officials from the Canadian Fisheries Patrol vessel Cape Roger boarded the Spanish fishing trawler Estai from Galicia in international waters 220 nautical miles off Canada’s east coast baseline, after firing three 50-caliber machine-gun bursts over its bow.
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They arrested the trawler’s crew then forced the Estai to a Canadian harbour.
However, according to the 2014 book ‘Fishing for a Solution – Canada’s Fisheries Relations’, even if Canadian examination of the Estai found evidence of serious fishing violations, including use of an illegal fishing net, Canada decided to release the vessel allowing negotiations to get underway.
The authors Donald Barry, Bob Applebaum and Earl Wiseman wrote: “But defiant Spanish trawlers resumed fishing, accompanied by a naval patrol vessel with orders to use ‘deadly force’ to protect them.”
Despite the offensive, thanks to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s government, the EU finally backed down.
The authors explained: “The Canadian government kept up its pressure on the EU.
“The day after EU Fisheries Commissioner Emma Bonino demanded proof of EU violations, his Canadian counterpart Brian Tobin displayed the Estai’s huge net, the size of a football field, along with its illegal small mesh liner, on a barge in the Hudson River across from the UN headquarters in New York.
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“He also produced undersized turbot, smaller than his hand, as well as American plaice found in a secret hold on the vessel.
“In a shameless but highly effective bit of hyperbole, Mr 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’.””
They concluded: “The demonstration dealt a damaging blow to the EU’s credibility.
“Backing away from her accusations, Ms Bonino called for an end to the ‘war of words’ and a resolution of the dispute.”
The turbot war effectively set the stage for a new quota-sharing agreement and tougher conservation and enforcement rules to deter fishing violations.
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