By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Service
TORONTO - Some nations gain prominence through ethnic conflict. Others reach the world stage because of brutal dictators, horrible crimes or natural disasters. Canada this month chose a different course to global attention : fish.
The nation known abroad and at home for mild behavior and distaste for conflict has turned, in the words of one critic, into an international pirate.
In the last three weeks, Canadian patrol vessels have arrested one Spanish trawler, cut the net of another and chases and tried to board a third, all on grounds that the ships were catching too much turbot. All these incidents took place on the high seas, where, according to generally accepted international law, Canada has no jurisdiction.
In New York, where he was attending a United Nations conference on curbing global overfishing, Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin engaged in an American-style photo opportunity Tuesday in an attempt to make the case for his side. On a barge in the East River, he displayed the 7.000 pound (318 Kilogram) net of the arrested ship, the Estai, cut off by the ship's own sailors as it was trying to avoid pursuit. Mr Tobin said it was a "monstrosity" whose mesh was designed to catch illegal baby fish.
The turbot affair has brought widespread international criticism of Canada. In the Hague, Spain filed an action Tuesday against Canada in the International Court of Justice. Emma Bonino, fisheries commissioner of the European Union, which handles fishing issues for Spain and the EU's 14 other members, called the sea chases and net-cuttings "international piracy". She added that Canada was acting, in Wild West fashion, "as the self-appointed lawmaker, sheriff and judge".
But Ottawa's chief delegate to the EU, Jacques Roy, said Wednesday that Canada would reject a ruling by the orld Court. "We have indicated that we would have reservations" about the jurisdiction" of the international court in this case", he said.
Canada is spurred by several factors -historical tradition, domestic politics and economic desperation- that indicate the actions of the country with the world's longest coastline are not that surprising.
So far, Canadian officials show no signs of remorse. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien remains firmly behind Mr Tobin, a 40-year-old former television anchor from Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province and the one most dependent on fishing. And the Canadian public seems overjoyed at this display of national aggression.
"I think Tobin should stick to his guns", said a typical participant in an electronic discussiongroup on Canadian issues on the CompuServe network.
Historically, Canada has aggressively protected its coastal waters and unilaterally enlarged their boundaries from time to time. It was one of the first nations in the 1960s to establish a 12mile (19 kilometer) fishing zone off its coast, and the first to extend its territorial fishing rights to 200 miles in the 1970s. It declared sovereignty over Arctic waters to protect them from pollution, and it angered Americans in 1985 by initially refusing an American icebreaker the right to move through the Northwest Passage.
"It's a mysterious dimension of the Canadian ambassador to the United States and an expert on international sea law. "We've always been very conciliatory and emphasized arbitration on other matters, but when it comes to coastal waters and territorial issues, we've always felt we needed to take unilateral action".
Politically, Mr Chrétien and Mr Tobin presumably know that, in a year when the province of Quebec is set to vote on whether to separate from the rest of Canada, the turbot tempest has brought them widespread domestic support.
Mr Tobin's actions also resonate in his home province of Newfoundland, where 50.000 fishermen and fish-plant workers are unemployed. The government has closed their once-rich fishing grounds in hopes that stocks of cod, which have plummeted by 99 percent, will recover.
Ironically, it was partly because of overfishing in Canadian waters that the cod disaster occurred; Mr Tobin and others admit the government allowed too much fishing for too long but, with the zeal of the converted, say that makes it even more important to ensure that the fishing grounds just outside the 200 mile limit are not denuded as well.