There are concerns that CETA, the proposed free trade agreement between Canada and Europe, could make it more difficult for Canada to restrict access to its ports for European vessels, including those cited for fishing infractions outside the 200-mile limit, CBC News has learned.

As part of the free trade negotiations, the European Union requested that its vessels be granted "most-favoured nation" (MFN) treatment when it comes to port access. It appears Canada has granted the request.

Essentially, that means the best treatment given to any foreign vessels in Canadian ports must be extended to European vessels as well. 

"These port privileges will make it easier for European vessels to catch fish adjacent to Canadian waters," Scott Sinclair, with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, told CBC Radio's Fisheries Broadcast.

Sinclair authored a study entitled "Globalization, Trade Treaties and the Future of the Atlantic Canadian Fisheries." He had raised concerns about the free trade negotiations in the past, and said the MFN status for foreign fishing vessels could be a wrinkle in the future.

He said granting MFN status to European vessels could remove one of the few punitive measures Canada has in place to deal with foreign overfishing.

"The ports are open now, but in the past when fleets have misbehaved, port access was a lever that we had to try to influence their behaviour," Sinclair noted.

Potential deterrent

Currently, when a vessel is found to have broken the fishing rules in waters outside the 200-mile limit, they are given a citation and sent back to their flag nation for a follow-up investigation. If any punishments are to be handed down, it can only be done by the flag state — a process that has long raised critical hackles.

Given the fact that foreign boats often tie up in Canadian ports to offload or to take on supplies or fuel, the ability to restrict port access for vessels was seen as a potential deterrent for rule-breakers.

However, granting MFN status does not mean port sovereignty has been compromised. Canada would still be able to restrict access and even charge vessels in cases where laws were broken inside the 200-mile limit.

Ships could also be denied access under other circumstances. For example, if a vessel was deemed a security threat.

It is unclear how difficult it would be for Canada to restrict access solely on the basis of a ship having been cited for infractions in high seas areas outside its jurisdiction — such as the NAFO-controlled waters outside the 200-mile limit.