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From 30 years ago: Trawling for trouble off the N.L. coast

It seemed the incoming fishing vessels were trawling for trouble as they made their approach across the Atlantic Ocean three decades ago.

St-Pierre-Miquelon residents and fishermen pushed back against French fishing trawlers

In 1989, fishermen in St-Pierre-Miquelon were upset by the news that two French fishing trawler were headed to their region. 2:05
It seemed the incoming fishing vessels were trawling for trouble as they made their approach across the Atlantic Ocean three decades ago.
In the 1980s, the main industry in St-Pierre-Miquelon was fishing, as had been the case for decades. (The National/CBC Archives)

"Tonight, two giant fishing trawlers from France are steaming toward disputed waters off Newfoundland, their crews determined to fish those waters once they get there," the CBC's Knowlton Nash reported to viewers of The National on Jan. 4, 1989.

"It's the latest round in Canada's long-running fish war with France, but this time, fishermen in Newfoundland are sharing their anger over France's move with some unexpected allies."

Those fellow opponents of the French action were the fishermen and residents of of​ St-Pierre-Miquelon, two islands belonging to France — and they, too, worried about the impact those French ships would have on their livelihood.

They wanted just one trawler working in the vicinity, yet two were en route to North America.

'The only productive industry we have'

Victor Reux, an economic adviser in St-Pierre-Miquelon, said the concern was that too much commercial fishing could damage a local economy that was largely dependent on the stocks of fish in the waters surrounding them.

In 1989, Victor Reux talks to CBC News about the fishing-related dispute involving fishermen in St-Pierre-Miquelon and some incoming French fishing trawlers. (The National/CBC Archives)

"The fishing industry is the only productive industry we have," Reux said when explaining the situation to CBC News.

Local fishermen felt the same way, which is why they were occupying a fisheries office in a bid to pressure the French government to send one of the two trawlers back home.

But as the CBC's Brian DuBreuil reported, some were even "threatening to use violence" to turn the second trawler back — perhaps by ramming one of the boats at sea.

The sit-in at the fisheries office would come to an end a day later, with The Canadian Press reporting that more than 50 people had participated. According to the report, the French government promised that only one of the two trawlers would be fishing in the area that concerned the St-Pierre-Miquelon residents.

But that wasn't the end of the ongoing trawl brawl. 

'A defiant and spontaneous demonstration'

By mid-month, talks between the two sides had broken down and France sent two planeloads of security forces to St-Pierre-Miquelon to protect a governor who was due to visit there.

One of two French military planes was forced to divert to St. John's, after protesters blocked a runway in St-Pierre-Miquelon. (The National/CBC Archives)

After the first plane landed on Jan. 15, 1989, residents engaged in what DuBreuil described as "a defiant and spontaneous demonstration," in which they used heavy vehicles — including dump trucks and bulldozers — to block it.

The situation forced the second military plane to divert to St. John's.

Images on television showed some protesters spray-painting messages on the plane that was trapped on the runway in St-Pierre-Miquelon. The plane's passengers watched from inside the plane as the action unfolded.

DuBreuil, who was again reporting on the trawler-fight story, said the spray-painted messages were "slogans of contempt for a government thousands of kilometres away, a government they say ignores them and their problems." 

The protesters demanded that Paris send its security forces home, along with the trawlers at the centre of the conflict.

Paris gets involved ... again

Fishermen in St-Pierre-Miquelon continued to push back against the fishing trawlers through the middle of January 1989. 1:50

Eventually, the French prime minister became involved, making a call to some of the people in St-Pierre-Miquelon who were involved in the dispute.

"[The prime minister] told the island's defence committee the second trawler would stop fishing," the CBC's DuBreuil said while reporting on the latest developments on The National on Jan. 17, 1989.

DuBreuil said a delegation from St-Pierre-Miquelon had also agreed to travel to Paris to engage in discussions on the conflict with the prime minister.

'They were led to this'

In 1989, the Canadian honorary consul in St-Pierre-Miquelon comments on the conflict over French fishing trawlers. 1:36
In the view of Jean-Pierre Andrieux, the Canadian honorary consul in St-Pierre-Miquelon, the people had been pushed by the actions of their government.

"It's always better when things are calmer, but they were led to this," Andrieux told CBC's Midday on Jan. 17. 

The Canadian Press reported that it was agreed on Jan. 19 that one of the two trawlers would depart the area, leaving just one vessel fishing there, as the residents had demanded in the first place.