(by Robert Kozak)
(REUTER) Ottawa, Feb 17 - Canada and the European Union appeared headed on a collision course on Saturday over the issue of overfishing in the Atlantic ocean with Canada demanding adherence to quotas and the EC seeking to circumvent it.
Canadian officials, echoing a warning by Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin, said late Friday EU "pirates" would not be allowed to increase their take of turbot or Greenland halibut off Canada's east coast and hinted of retaliation on the high seas.
"We will not allow the EU to devastate turbot the way it devastated other ground fish stocks", Tobin said on Thursday. The EU says accusations of piracy seriously threaten diplomatic ties with Canada.
"We are not the pirates of the Atlantic," EU Fisheries Commissioner Emma Bonino said after the European Parliament voted on Thursday to seek more support from member states to fight against new restrictions on fishing. Canadian politicians are hinting Canada will use force to stop any ship that overfishes, even outside the country's 200-mile (360 km) territorial limit. Tempers have flared since the 15 major fishing nations that make up a fisheries management group known as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) sharply reduced its turbot quota for the European Union. NAFO cut quotas for turbot almost in half to 27,000 tonnes in 1995, and allocated 16,300 tonnes to Canada. It only gave 3,400 tonnes to the EU, down from 50,000 tonnes last year.
The European Union said that was unfair, prompting strong protests and hints from politicians that EU fishermen should ignore the allotment and fish the region as before. Behind the war of words is the sad fact that fish stocks have dwindled sharply in the North Atlantic. About 50,000 Canadian fishermen are receiving government aid because of a moratorium on Atlantic cod stocks, which some scientists say may be close to extinction.
Canada and the EU clashed regularly over fishing of the cod stocks before they brought in a moratorium to protect the vanishing stocks. Canada also passed a law last year that allows it to arrest foreifn fishing ships if officials suspect they are breaching international fishing agreements.
The ambassador of the European Union in Canada, John Beck, said recently that the EU does not accept Canada's "right to take the law into its own bands, "by policing conservation in international waters. In the fisheries business, the slope beyond 200 miles (320 km) is particularly slippery and unilateral action is the wrong kind of action", Beck said in a recent speech. Beck said he may invoke a rarely used "objection procedure" to overturn the NAFO allocation.
"The NAFO cannot be used as a coercive vehicle to force any one contracting party to accept measures which that party regards as unreasonable, unbalanced and inequitable", Beck said.
Canada says the last time the EU used its special objection it led to severe overfishing by Spanish fleets and the devastation of the stock of northern cod.