Skip to main content

From the window of the small patrol aircraft that's droning its way through the whirling fog on the Grand Banks, it's hard to see the new Canadian offensive against foreign overfishing.

The plane, filled with electronic gadgetry designed to locate, photograph and detail the activity of foreign boats fishing just outside Canadian waters, dives frequently to view trawlers. But the crew can't get a close look because of the fog.

In a five-hour patrol from St. John's, federal fisheries officer Steve Smith spots and records the locations of 14 fishing boats on the northern portion of the Grand Banks, but the patches of fog prevent him from seeing the nets or any fish they might have on deck.

It's all part of the often tedious and unrewarding job of watching the activities of more than 40 foreign vessels in a massive patch of ocean that covers 50,000 square nautical miles. "Sometimes it's like watching grass grow," Mr. Smith, who's been with DFO for 24 years, said in an interview on the aircraft last week. "This is a slow process."

But things heated up in the controversial fishing zone a few days later. Last Thursday, Department of Fisheries and Oceans inspectors boarded the Spanish fishing boat Dorneda and issued two citations alleging the crew didn't properly record their catch of turbot or where they were storing it.

A DFO spokesman said the Spanish boat had just begun fishing in international waters when the Canadians stopped it. The Dorneda has since left the fishing zone.

Little has been heard about the crackdown on foreign fishing in international waters since Canada stopped two Portuguese boats in early May. At that time, federal Fisheries Minister Geoff Regan said Ottawa would invest $15-million in additional patrols and surveillance technology to halt what he called the destruction of fish stocks by "modern-day pirates."

Since early May, DFO out of St. John's has doubled the frequency of its inspections of foreign vessels in international waters from its three Canadian Coast Guard ships. Inspectors are now boarding a foreign boat a day (they've conducted 84 boat inspections since May) checking to see whether the crew is violating bans on catching cod or flatfish or is using fine-mesh gear to catch small fish.

The airplane patrols have also increased, with daily forays from St. John's by Provincial Airlines planes and air force Aurora aircraft. But the inspections and patrols have yielded only six citations for fishing violations and no charges have been laid.

Mr. Regan said in an interview that the Canadian enforcement effort has been effective because the threat of boardings and inspections forced the foreign fleet to move away from shallow waters where they were catching endangered cod and flatfish.

"When we began this, they [the Portuguese boats]were using illegal gear and [catching]moratorium species, and since that time we haven't found that," Mr. Regan said. "This is about changing behaviour. This is not about politicking or publicity stunts."

Under the rules of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization -- a group of countries that fish in the North Atlantic -- Canada can cite boats for fisheries violations. But it's up to the home country to lay charges after inspecting the boat. Such action is rarely taken.

The enforcement operation that began in May with high-blown rhetoric has lacked the histrionics and international sabre-rattling of the 1995 turbot war led by flamboyant fisheries minister Brian Tobin, in which the Spanish vessel Estai was hauled to St. John's but subsequently released.

In May, DFO officials accused the crew of the Portuguese trawler Brites of violating a NAFO moratorium by catching endangered plaice and cod. When the vessel returned home, the Portuguese wouldn't allow DFO officials to join the inspection. At the same time, the crew of another Portuguese boat, Aveirense, was accused of using a net with illegal small mesh. The Portuguese government has not charged the vessels and DFO officials say they have received no word on whether the boat owners will be prosecuted. The two ships are rumoured to be returning to the Grand Banks soon.

The lack of charges and boat seizures only adds to the cynicism in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the May operation was widely seen as a pre-election, vote-grabbing move. The Tory provincial government is demanding Ottawa take over policing and managing of stocks in international waters.

Mr. Regan said the federal government would consider extending its jurisdiction if diplomatic attempts to get stiffer penalties for offending boats fail. He knows that countries such as Portugal and Spain, which have fished in the area for more than four centuries, would hotly oppose a unilateral move.

Don Hollett, head of offshore operations for DFO in St. John's, won't touch the political debate. But Mr. Hollett, who was on a Canadian frigate during the May enforcement exercise, insists that the current enforcement operation is quietly yielding results.

"Those vessels [Aveirense and Brites]went home a month before they were supposed to without full catches, so there are some fish saved there," Mr. Hollett said. "They went home sooner than they expected and stayed home longer."

After the incident in May, the European boats headed for deeper waters, where they are casting nets for redfish, turbot and shrimp.

A DFO report submitted to NAFO last year stated that foreign vessels caught 15,000 tonnes of banned species in 2003 -- a move that could endanger the slow recovery of those stocks.

Mr. Hollett said the Canadian enforcement efforts have forced vessels from Europe and Russia to leave fragile fish stocks alone without the need to lay charges.

"In some cases we've had [foreign]vessels that were spending a lot of time in areas where the moratorium species were and now those boats aren't there," he said. "It wasn't economical for them to fish there with the kind of pressure we were putting on them with the inspections and the flyovers -- it takes a lot of time and finally they just have to give up and move on."

However, foreign captains are finding ways to hide evidence from the prying eyes of DFO inspectors.

Illegal catches of cod and American plaice are sometimes concealed in boxes under tonnes of turbot or redfish. Small-mesh nets are covered with tarps so the cameras of patrol aircraft can't spot them.

In the case of the Aveirense, the Canadian officers said the crew cut a small mesh net and sent it to the bottom of the ocean filled with fish before DFO officers boarded the boat. That left investigators with the difficult task of linking the small-mesh net with the boat.

Mr. Hollett said DFO officers will target and repeatedly board a fishing boat they believe is fishing illegally, seeking evidence of violations. "If we find somebody we think is out of line and not complying with the NAFO rules, then we will push and push and push until we get a full set of evidence. It may take 10 boardings to get to that point but we aren't going to stop."

Interact with The Globe