The Turbot War (known in Spain as Guerra del Fletán; French: Guerre du flétan) was an international fishing dispute and bloodless conflict between Canada and Spain, and their respective supporters.

Turbot War
Newfoundland Grand Banks and EEZ border.png
The location of the bulk of the conflict
Result Canadian position recognized[1][2]
 Canada  Spain
 European Union
Commanders and leaders
Jean Chrétien
Brian Tobin
Earle McCurdy
Lawrence E. Murray
Felipe González
Eduardo Serra
Javier Solana
Emma Bonino
Casualties and losses
None 1 fishing vessel captured
1 British fishing vessel mistakenly captured by French authorities

On 9 March 1995, Canadian officials from the Canadian Fisheries Patrol vessel Cape Roger boarded the Spanish fishing trawler Estai[3] from Galicia in international waters 220 nautical miles (410 km; 250 mi) off Canada's east coast after firing three 50-calibre machine-gun bursts over its bow.[4] They arrested the trawler's crew, then forced the Estai to a Canadian harbour. Canada claimed that European Union factory ships were illegally overfishing Greenland halibut (also known as Greenland turbot) in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) regulated area on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, just outside Canada's declared 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ).


Territorial seas have changed over time, having begun with a 3-nautical-mile (5.6 km) "cannon shot" territorial sea, followed by the long-standing extension to a 12-nautical-mile (22 km) standard. The economic control of the waters surrounding nations to 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zones (EEZ) was agreed at the conference on the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, and became recognised internationally on 14 November 1994.

As a self-governing colony and dominion, Newfoundland's foreign policy, just as Canada's, was established by the British government until the Statute of Westminster 1931. However, in 1934, Newfoundland's government voted to be put under the administration of a commission appointed by London; this situation remained until 1949 when the dominion entered Canadian Confederation.

Following Confederation, Canada recognized many of the foreign policy agreements Newfoundland had entered into under this commission. During the 1950s to the 1970s, domestic and foreign fishing fleets became increasingly industrialized, with massive factory freezer trawlers fishing out of Newfoundland ports. Foreign fleets were based in Newfoundland and could fish 12 nautical miles (22 km) offshore, while domestic fleets could fish in both the territorial sea and the offshore.

Many nations worldwide declared 200-nautical-mile EEZs, including the United States; Canada did so too in 1977. The EEZ boundaries became a foreign policy issue where overlapping claims existed, as was the case between Canada and the United States in the Gulf of Maine, Dixon Entrance, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Beaufort Sea, as well as between Canada and France in the case of St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Between 1973 and 1982 the United Nations and its member states negotiated the Third Convention of the Law of the Sea—one component of which was the concept of nations being allowed to declare an EEZ. Although not adopted into international law until 1982, the possibility of declaring an EEZ became a de facto reality in 1977 with the conclusion of those sections of the Third Conference negotiations relating to maritime boundary and economic control.

By the 1970s the overfishing by industrial vessels in the waters of the other provinces of eastern Canada was evident, although each subsequent federal government continued to ignore this problem and even contributed to it by using the issuance of fishing licenses for more inshore and offshore domestic vessels.

After the Canadian declaration of its 200 nautical mile EEZ in 1977, on the whole, fishermen in eastern Canada could fish unhindered out to the limit without fear of competing with foreign fleets. The Canadian government provided subsidies to increase the domestic fishing fleet and the local industry. At the same time the annual Total Allowable Catch (TAC) was set so high that fishing mortality was double that of the stock's Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY).[5]

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Canada's domestic offshore fleet grew as fishermen and fish processing companies rushed to take advantage. It was also during this time when it was noticed that the foreign fleets now pushed out to 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore and excluded from the rich Canadian waters, were increasing their harvest in the small areas of the Grand Banks that were outside the area of the EEZ. Canada's own fishery scientists assumed that only 5% of the Northern cod stocks was living in international waters regulated by NAFO. 95% of the cod stock was living inside the Canadian EEZ, where only Canadian vessels were allowed to fish. By the late 1980s, smaller catches of Northern Cod were being reported along the Atlantic coast of Canada as the federal government and citizens of coastal regions in the area began to face the reality that domestic and foreign overfishing had taken its toll. In the end, stocks of cod in and around Canada's EEZ were severely depleted. Reluctant to act at a time of declining political popularity, the federal government was finally forced to take drastic action in 1992 and a total moratorium was declared indefinitely for the Northern Cod. The TAC for both the Canadian EEZ and NAFO regulated area was based on Canadian scientific advice. This turned out to be wrong and the Northern cod stock collapsed in 1992, and has never recovered.[5]

The immediate impact was felt most in Newfoundland, followed by the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. The nascent Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, organised after the 1977 EEZ declarations to coordinate conservation efforts in Canada, the United States, and member nations in Europe (both western and eastern bloc countries), also declared a ban, however it was implemented too late to be effective. Cod which five to ten years before was being caught in record numbers, had vanished almost overnight to the point where it was considered for endangered species protection.

The economic impact in coastal Newfoundland was unprecedented. To lessen the impact that its policies of permitting overfishing had exacted upon rural Newfoundlanders, the federal government swiftly created a relief program called "The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy" (TAGS) to provide short- to medium-term financial support, and employment retraining for the longer term.

Despite TAGS, Newfoundland and coastal Nova Scotian communities began to experience an out-migration on a scale not seen in Canada since the prairie dust bowls of the 1930s. The anger at federal political figures was palpable. With the wholesale rejection of short-term Prime Minister Kim Campbell, incoming Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals were going to face the ongoing wrath of voters whose entire livelihoods had been decimated as a result of decades of federal neglect and mismanagement, and whose communities, property values, net worth, and way of life were declining rapidly.

Brian Tobin was the Canadian politician who was largely responsible for managing the conflict. This earned him the nicknames "Captain Canada" and "The Turbotonator".[6]

In the years since the cod moratorium, federal fisheries policy makers and scientists attempted to find a replacement species that could at least reinject economic stimulus into the affected regions. The ground fishery, while a fraction of what it had been during the cod years, did have some bright spots—one of which was the Greenland halibut commonly known in Canada as turbot. Demand for the turbot had decreased because of a common dislike for the taste in the European Union.

Canada was not alone in recognising the growing value of the turbot, and foreign fishing fleets operating off the 200-nautical-mile EEZ were also beginning to pursue the species in increasing numbers, as a response to the Northern cod moratorium. But the Turbot was not a fish under quota regulation in NAFO until the autumn of 1994 when it established a catch limit. Prior to the catch limit, Spanish vessels had explored turbot fishery on the Nose and Tail of the Grand Banks.

The Canadians claimed that the Turbot had relocated outside their EEZ to deeper waters, and they should have quotas based on their historical fisheries inside its EEZ. On the other hand, the Spanish and Portuguese (EU) claimed that this was an unexplored stock. Since they were the ones to explore the stocks initially, Spain and Portugal should have historic rights to the turbot fishery on the Grand Banks nose and tail, based on their historical catches, the total reported annual catches grew steadily from 27,000 t in 1990 to 62,000 t in 1994, when the Spanish and Portuguese vessels started to explore this fishery after other stocks were closed. Based on this catch history, the two countries claimed they should have 75% of the total turbot quota.

The turbot issue came before NAFO's annual meeting in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on 19–23 September 1994. After questioning the scientists' advice, the EU proposed a TAC of 40,000 t; Canada argued for 15,000 t. The meeting ultimately settled on 27,000 t. Since agreement was not reached until the final day, a special meeting was scheduled for Brussels on 30 January – 1 February 1995, to establish a distribution key for allocating quotas among the contracting parties. The EU approved the overall catch limit at the December meeting of the Fisheries Council over the objections of Spain and Portugal, who argued that the EU should set an autonomous quota of 30,000 t on the basis that scientific evidence allowed for a 40,000 t TAC, even though NAFO's Scientific Council had pointedly refrained from recommending a figure.[7][8]

Canada and NAFO had tracked about 50 violations of boats crossing the 200-nautical-mile EEZ limit to fish illegally within Canadian waters, as well as recording use of illegal gear and overfishing outside Canadian waters. There was a growing concern in Canada that the turbot stock, like the Northern cod in 1992, was also threatened by a collapse.

In October 1994, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Brian Tobin, contacted the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors and asked them to honour the NAFO regulation requiring countries to inspect their flag vessels to ensure that they were following the NAFO technical regulations. No improvement occurred. In 1993, the NAFO council had already decided to introduce and test new inspection measures, such as on-board observers, on 10% of the vessels fishing in NAFO-regulated waters outside the Canadian EEZ and Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). The European Commission had tried to extend its jurisdiction and the power of its inspectors in 1993, but had been turned down by the EU council. However the EU council could only try to persuade national governments to follow the internationally agreed rules as well as the rules within EU waters.

Brian Tobin, directed the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to begin a very aggressive dialogue with the European Union over the presence of its fishing fleet and its practices, particularly the use of illegal trawl nets just outside the Canadian EEZ while fishing for turbot. Tobin's critics in Canada noted that he was likely using his department as a political prop to shore up support during a time of increased social unrest in Maritime Canada, yet in the winter of 1995, Tobin directed DFO to establish a legal argument which could be made for the seizure of a foreign vessel in international waters using the premise of conservation.

At the December 1994, NAFO conference, in Brussels, both the EU and Canada claimed 75% of the agreed 27,000 tonnes TAC for turbot in the NAFO-regulated area. Both parties cited their historical catches— Canada before 1992 and the EU its catches after 1992. The Canadian position was that it objected to the use of historic catches. Instead it argued the special interest of the coastal state in UNCLOS should be used for setting the national quotas.

On 1 March 1995, the EU Council ignored a last-minute plea from Canada and unanimously agreed to invoke the objection procedure under the NAFO agreement and to set a unilateral quota of 18,630t (69% of the TAC). Tobin tried to put the Law of the Seas principles on coastal states' special interest to the test, as a first mover. Initially Tobin had tried to persuade his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make a unilateral extension of the Canadian EEZ to the entire Grand Banks. This was rejected by the Canadian prime minister. Instead Tobin declared that on 3 March 1995, the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act regulations had been broadened to make it an offence for Spanish and Portuguese vessels to fish for turbot on the nose and tail of the Grand Banks. On 6 March 1995, Tobin managed to have the Canadian cabinet authorise this extension of the law.

The same day, an EU reply came in a strongly worded message from the Foreign Affairs Council which defended the EU's right to use the NAFO objection procedure, restated its commitment to conservation, and condemned the Coastal Fisheries Protection Act as a violation of international law.

Sections of the Canadian government agreed with the EU opinion on the unlawfulness of Canada arresting EU vessels outside the Canadian EEZ. There were strong opponents in the Canadian cabinet, from the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who had different concerns over confronting the European Union, an allied NATO member. Tobin managed to frame the issue and gain the support of the prime minister. This settled the issue in the cabinet; it was persuaded to arrest a Spanish vessel if diplomacy failed.[7]

The Estai incidentEdit

Minister Tobin and the federal cabinet then told the DFO to demonstrate Canadian resolve on the issue by "making an example" of a European Union fishing vessel. On 9 March 1995, an offshore patrol aircraft detected the Spanish stern trawler Estai in international waters outside Canada's 200-nautical-mile EEZ. Armed DFO patrol vessels, Cape Roger, Leonard J. Cowley and Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfred Grenfell, intercepted and pursued Estai, which cut its weighted trawl net and fled after an initial boarding attempt. A chase that lasted several hours ended after the Canadian Fisheries Patrol vessel Cape Roger fired a .50 calibre machine gun across the Estai's bow.[4] The Sir Wilfred Grenfell used high-pressure fire-fighting water cannon to deter other Spanish fishing vessels from disrupting the operation. Finally, armed DFO Fishery Officers and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers boarded Estai in international waters on the Grand Banks.

Estai was escorted to St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, arriving with great fanfare across the province and region—and the country. Canada's federal court processed the case and the charges against the crew while Spain and the European Union protested vehemently, threatening boycotts against Canada and wishing to have the case heard at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.

On 11 March 1995, The Spanish Navy deployed the Serviola-class patrol boat Atalaya to protect its country's fishing vessels. The Spanish Navy also prepared a surface task group with frigates and tankers, but Spain eventually decided against sending it.

Tobin and his department ignored the controversy and instead had the oversized trawl net which Estai had cut free salvaged. The DFO contracted a Fishery Products International ground fish trawler to drag for Estai's trawl. On the first attempt it retrieved the Estai's net which had been cut. It was found that Estai was using a liner with a mesh size smaller than permitted by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO). The net was shipped to New York City where Tobin called an international press conference on board a rented barge in the East River outside the United Nations headquarters. There, the net from Estai was displayed, hanging from an enormous crane, and Tobin used the occasion to shame the Spanish and EU governments, pointing out the small size of the holes in the net which are illegal in Canada. Spain never denied that the net was from Estai but continued to protest Canada's use of "extra-territorial force". The Spanish government asked the International Court of Justice for leave to hear a case claiming that Canada had no right to detain Estai. However, the court later refused to hear the case.[9] Later, Canada released the crew of Estai. On the same day that Tobin was in New York, the United Kingdom blocked an EU proposal to impose sanctions on Canada.[10] Tobin claimed that Canada would not enter into negotiations as long as illegal fishing continued, and demanded the withdrawal of all fishing vessels in the area as a precondition. On 15 March, the owners of Estai posted a $500,000[clarification needed] bond for the vessel, and it was returned to Spain. Subsequently, the rest of the fishing fleet also left the area, and preliminary talks were scheduled for the upcoming G7 conference. These talks failed, as the Spanish refused to change their position, and Spanish fishing vessels subsequently returned to Grand Banks. Spain also implemented a visa mandate for all Canadians visiting, or planning to visit the country. This resulted in several Canadians being deported from Spain who had been there legally until the moment the visa mandate was adopted.[11] The visa mandate was later overturned by the EU in 1996. Negotiations ceased on 25 March, and the following day, Canadian ships cut the nets of the Portuguese trawler Pescamero Uno. The Spanish Navy responded by deploying a second patrol boat. Canadian warships and patrol planes in the vicinity were authorized by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to fire on Spanish vessels that exposed their guns.

On 27 March 1995, Emma Bonino, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, called the seizure "an act of organised piracy".[12] The Spanish demanded that the Canadian government return the ship to its captain and crew along with its catch of Greenland halibut, or turbot. They said Estai was fishing in international waters.

Direct negotiations between the EU and Canada eventually restarted, and a deal was reached on 5 April. Spain, however, rejected it, demanding better terms. After Canada threatened to forcibly remove Spanish fishing vessels, the EU pressured Spain into finally reaching a settlement on 15 April. Canada reimbursed the $500,000 that had been paid for Estai's release, repealed the CFPR provision that allowed the arrest of Spanish vessels, and a reduction of Canada's own turbot allocation. A new international regime to observe EU and Canadian fishing vessels was also created.[10] making a number trial measures permanent, as on board observers and VMS.

The dispute raised Brian Tobin's political profile, helping to preserve his political career in Newfoundland at a time when federal politicians were being increasingly vilified. It also led to his decision in 1996 to pursue to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland following the resignation of Premier Clyde Wells, as well as a widely discussed future possibility for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

The international impactEdit

At the New York conference the Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, which implemented the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the conservation and management of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks was signed in December 1995. Tobin framed it as a result of the Canadian stand off with Europe, which found domestic support.[4] The conference in fact repeatedly rejected proposals that would have conflicted with the Law of the Sea convention, such as provisions that would have given coastal states fishery jurisdiction beyond 200 miles.[13]

In the years to come Canada underwent more hardship. On the other hand, Canadian fishing workers on Canada's east coast applauded the conviction that Canada was acting as an environmental safeguard against over exploitation, but the jobs in the fishing industry had disappeared.[14] The distant water fleets felt that Canada had destroyed the cod stocks and wanted everyone else to pay part of the cost.[5]

The 2001 Helsinor meeting in Denmark was a turning point for NAFO and Canada. It marked the beginning of the end of Canada's coastal state dominance of NAFO, the decline of Canada's influence in protecting the fish stocks of the Northwest Atlantic, and the start of the EU's ascendance into the leadership position that Canada had filled for some 25 years.[15] It began when Canada pushed a decision on depth limits for turbot fisheries to a vote, and for the first time lost. This caused a lot of domestic concern in Canada, and Canada basically required that the NAFO treaty should be changed.[15]

In September 2005, the contracting parties agreed to begin the task of reforming NAFO with an EU-Canadian ad hoc working group chaired by the EU. This came as a result of growing pressure from Canada to reform NAFO. In 2006 the working group came out with its first draft proposals based on The North East Atlantic Fishery Commission (NEAFC) treaty. It gave much more power to the distant water fleet states than the old 1979 NAFO treaty. Some of the first drafts also gave NAFO the right to regulate fisheries within Canada's EEZ.[15] The Draft proposals also changed the voting procedures so a two-thirds majority vote had to be present. But it also changed the objection procedure, that had made it possible for the EU to claim that Canada broke international law, when the EU objected to the turbot quota allocated to the EU in 1995, and Canada seized Estai. The new treaty amendments were presented in September 2007 and went into force in May 2017, after two-thirds of the contracting parties had ratified the agreement.

The Newlyn incidentEdit

Although Spain was getting political support from the EU (including naval support from Germany among others), the United Kingdom and Ireland supported Canada.[16] The then prime-minister John Major risked his status within the EU community by speaking out against Spain.

Because of this, some British fishing boats took to flying Canadian flags to show their support. This brought the conflict to European waters when a Cornish fishing boat, Newlyn, then flying the Canadian flag, was arrested by a French ship that believed it to be Canadian.

This dragged Britain and Ireland from their position of passive backing into full support of the Canadians. Overnight, Canadian flags began to fly from all manner of British and Irish vessels.[17]

The rest of the EU rallied behind France and Spain, but hesitated to make any mobilizations against the British, Irish, or Canadians.

Upon hearing the news of the conflict, Iceland spoke up and took the side of the EU against Britain in light of their similar conflict with the British, back in the 1970s, known as the Cod Wars. No military mobilization took place. Iceland tried to put political pressure on the United Kingdom and Ireland.[18] The British and the Irish pointedly ignored these actions and continued their support of Brian Tobin and the Canadians.

In the end Newlyn was returned to the British without further incident.

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ "Province welcomes Canadian victory in Turbot War case". Executive Council. Archived from the original on 21 April 2017. Retrieved 21 April 2017.
  2. ^ Springer, Allen L. (1997). "The Canadian Turbot War with Spain: Unilateral State Action in Defense of Environmental Interests". The Journal of Environment & Development. 6: 26–60. doi:10.1177/107049659700600103.
  3. ^ Springer, Allen L. (March 1997). "The Canadian Turbot War with Spain: Unilateral State Action in Defense of Environmental Interests". The Journal of Environment & Development. 6 (1): 26–60. doi:10.1177/107049659700600103. ISSN 1070-4965.
  4. ^ a b c Harris, Michael (2013). Lament for an Ocean: The Collapse of the Atlantic Cod Fishery. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. pp. 12. ISBN 9780771039584.
  5. ^ a b c Rose, Alex (2008). Who Killed the Grand Banks?. Toronto: Wiley. pp. 53–71. ISBN 978-0-470-15387-1.
  6. ^ "Court backs Canada's seizure of trawler during 'turbot war'". CBC News. 27 July 2005. Archived from the original on 14 July 2009.
  7. ^ a b Donald, Barry (Spring 1998). "The Canadian - European Turbot War: International politics and transatlantic bargaining". International Journal: 254–284.
  8. ^ North Atlantic Fisheries Organization, Report of the Fisheries Commission, 16th Annual Meeting, 19–23 September 1994, Dartmouth, NS, Canada, NAFO/Fc Doc 94/13;
  9. ^ "Fisheries Jurisdiction (Spain v. Canada), Jurisdiction of the Court, Judgment, I. C.J. Reports 1998" (PDF). Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders by Chronological Order. International Court of Justice: 432. 1998. ISSN 0074-4441. Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 December 2009. Retrieved 1 February 2010.
  10. ^ a b Sneyd, Elizabeth. "Fighting over fish: A look at the 1995 Canada-Spain Turbot War" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 September 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  11. ^ Buerkle, Tom (15 March 1995). "Madrid Sets Visa Rules And Calls for Vessels To Start Fishing Again : Spain Steps Up Pressure on Canada in Boat Dispute". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 29 October 2016. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
  12. ^ "Turbot War". Archived from the original on 7 April 2019. Retrieved 30 May 2019.
  13. ^ Balton, David (1996). "Strengthening the law of the sea: The new agreement on straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks". Ocean Development & International Law. 27 (1–2): 125–151. doi:10.1080/00908329609546078.
  14. ^ DeSombre, Elizabeth (2002). Turbot and Tempers in the North Atlantic in Conserving the Peace: Resources, Livelihoods and Security, ed. Richard Matthew and Jason Switzer. Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development. pp. 325–360. ISBN 1895536626.
  15. ^ a b c Barry, Donald (2014). FISHING FOR A SOLUTION:CANADA'S FISHERIES RELATIONS WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION, 1977–2013. Canada: University of Calgary Press. pp. 76–114. ISBN 978-1-55238-779-5.
  16. ^ "Fish War ends". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 8 September 2019.
  17. ^ "The Turbot War3". Archived from the original on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 17 June 2019.
  18. ^ Missios, Paul C.; Plourde, Charles (1996). "The Canada-European Union Turbot War: A Brief Game Theoretic Analysis". Canadian Public Policy. 22 (2): 144. doi:10.2307/3551905. JSTOR 3551905.

Works citedEdit

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