In what looks uncannily like a repeat of the notorious Estai incident in 1995, when a Spanish trawler was arrested by the Canadians after being caught fishing illegally in waters off Newfoundland, eight Portuguese fishing vessels have been boarded by Canadian officials for the same practices.
In 1995, however, the Estai refused to be boarded, and a Canadian vessel had to open fire on her before she would stop. The then fisheries commissioner, Emma Bonino, accused Canada of "piracy" and it was only later when a secret hold was found in the vessel – stuffed with illegal catches – that she was forced to climb down. By then, a rash of Canadian flags had appeared in Britain, the incident particularly striking a chord with British fishermen who had also suffered from the depredations of the Spanish fishing fleet.
This time, however, both the EU and the Canadian authorities have been quick to defuse the situation. With an EU fisheries inspector on board, one of the vessels, the trawler Brites, has been allowed to head for its home port. According to the EU Commission, the Brites would be “inspected by the Portuguese inspection authorities in accordance with the standard rules of NAFO (North Atlantic Fisheries Organisation)”, when it arrived.
Needless to say, Portugal had earlier rejected the claim that any of its boats had been involved in illegal fishing. But Canadian fisheries officials claimed that a net ditched by the Brites just before she had been boarded by naval and coastguard officers boarded the vessel showed evidence of illegal fishing in international waters. Its mesh size was below the legally permitted limit.
According to AFP, citing Randy Jenkins, the Canadian foreign ministry's acting director conservation and protection, most of the fish found in the net were prohibited species. But the EU is desperately seeking to salvage what it can from the incident. An EU spokesman claimed that the return of the vessel to Portugal was "a clear demonstration of the European Union's commitment to the conservation of fisheries resources and rigorous control of fishing activities wherever its vessels operate."
Nevertheless, the Canadians have retained the Brites’s net, which they say "provides clear and tangible evidence of serious fishing infractions." It remains to be seen whether the EU inspectors find anything wrong with the Brites when she finally returns home.