Turbot War

Canada’s uncharacteristically bellicose moment on the world stage, staring down European fishing fleets whose overfishing was depleting Canadian fishing stocks and threatening the Newfoundland Fishery.

The Chrétien government took unprecedented action to enforce a moratorium on turbot fishing against Spanish fishing trawlers in the winter of 1995. Newfoundland was already reeling from the closing of the cod fishery several years earlier, and the pursuit of alarmingly dwindling turbot stock by Spanish ships fishing with virtual impunity was the final straw for the sector. In short order, the government unilaterally extended Canada’s jurisdiction into international waters and aggressively enforced it, even going to the point of boarding a Spanish ship, the Estai, on the high seas.

In the diplomatic melee that ensued, Canada was in the uncharacteristic position of facing off against the EU. The decisive moment came on a barge in New York’s East River, of all places, when on the eve of a special UN meeting to discuss the crisis (and in the shadow of New York’s UN headquarters), Canada’s media-savvy Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin held a news conference that centred on a gigantic fishing net seized from the Estai. The net also happened to be illegal – its mesh holes were too small – enabling Tobin to make an emotional speech about the Turbot species “hanging on by its nails.”

The war was over – without a shot fired. The hapless EU bureaucrats were no match for Tobin’s tour de force (it also helped that the UK vetoed EU efforts to impose sanctions on Canada for violating international law).

The result: a flurry of national pride (hence Tobin’s designation as “Captain Canada” – and the somewhat less lofty “The Turbonator”) not over a typically Canadian expression of international cooperation, but over a decidedly un-Canadian display of exceptionalism and swashbuckling.

Image source: Wikimedia

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