Court backs Canada's seizure of trawler during 'turbot war'

A Federal Court judge said Canada did not act illegally when it seized the Spanish fishing trawler the Estai in March 1995 in a dispute over overfishing.

Canada did not act illegally when it seized a Spanish fishing trawler in 1995 in the so-called "turbot war" on overfishing, the Federal Court of Canada says.

The case involved the seizure of the Estai, one of the few ships ever apprehended by Canada for suspected illegal fishing.

Charges laid in 1995 against the trawler and its captain were eventually stayed.

But the case landed in Federal Court this year when the ship's captain and owner sought $1 million in compensation. They argued Canada arrested their ship not to protect stocks, but to enable Canadians to catch turbot instead.

In the ruling Tuesday, Judge Frederick Gibson dismissed the lawsuit.

But he did order Canada to pay the ship's owners $137,000 for expenses and lost income.

International incident

The Estai incident attracted national and international attention in March 1995.

Authorities used water cannons and warning shots to arrest the trawler, which was off the coast of Newfoundland at the time, outside Canada's 200-mile fishery limit.

The Estai was then taken to St. John's, where a large crowd assembled at the waterfront to witness the event.

In court, the trawler's captain and its owners accused Canadian authorities of "trespass on high seas" and "reckless endangerment."

But Judge Gibson ruled Canada did not act illegally. "There was no trespass on the high seas in the arrest of the Estai," he wrote.

The actions taken "in the boarding and arresting of the Estai were valid in law," the judge added.

The Estai incident and the heated rhetoric of the "turbot war" put the spotlight on Brian Tobin, Canada's minister of fisheries at the time.

Tobin said at the time the illegal-sized mesh found on board the ship proved Canada's case about foreign overfishing.

"We're down now finally to one last, lonely, unloved, unattractive little turbot clinging on by its fingernails to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland," Tobin said at the time.

Tobin's stand earned him the nickname "Captain Canada" and the "Turbotnator."

The former radio reporter turned politician went on to become the premier of Newfoundland in January 1996.

He returned to federal politics as Jean Chrétien's industry minister in 2000, but retired from politics in 2002.