Is Ottawa ceding control of the East Coast fishery?

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The Harper government is trying to rush the passage of a new agreement that could give European nations, which continue to overfish cod on the Grand Banks (over-quota again in 2008 to the tune of 119 per cent), a say in how Canada's fisheries are managed within its own 200-mile limit.

Worse, the provision was apparently drafted by the EU negotiators, without Canadian input. The Harper Tories merely acquiesced.

This new NAFO (Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization) treaty could come before Parliament for ratification within weeks, with the government refusing to allow debate on it.

Shocked, Canada's top fish treaty experts first tried to influence government quietly. No luck. Now they're ringing the alarm. Resistance is rising among opposition parties. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador is upset and is trying to recruit the other East Coast provinces to block it.

The government insists that this is fearmongering. Fishery Minister Gail Shea, in a statement last week, said the amendment does nothing to diminish Canadian jurisdiction. It merely allows a NAFO member to request that a measure be adopted by NAFO to apply within the jurisdiction of another state.

The experts objecting have been Canada's top fishery bureaucrats, now retired, for the past 40 years. They are Bill Rowat, Scott Parsons, Earl Wiseman and Bob Applebaum. Applebaum, the lead man in the argument, participated in bringing Canada the 200-mile limit in the late 1970s, helped write the original document that created NAFO in 1979, then went to the UN where he is considered by many to be the father of UNFA, the United Nations Fish Agreement, meant to regulate fishery practice among nations.

Applebaum has produced a critique of Shea's statement, including essentially calling her a liar. Shea stated that the amendment in question reflects practice elsewhere, notably the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement. Applebaum dryly says: "It has not been possible to locate any provision in the UN agreement that even suggests this."

Countering the "fear mongering," Shea stated that "Canada retains full control over resources in its own waters, and will not be coerced or pressured into giving up this control."

"Perhaps 'cajoled' would be a better word," says Applebaum. "The federal government has already been cajoled into accepting the 'request' clause. Why could a government, in future, not be cajoled into using it?"

The point is that the EU is the only significant NAFO member that has an interest in someone else's water -- mainly Canada's. Canada does not fish in the EU. So why even consider such an EU-drafted amendment?

Further, Shea, in keeping with the government's rhetoric on this, claims that "Canada has achieved effective control over the straddling groundfish stocks ... this is custodial management."

"Custodial management" was the catchword for Canada applying its law beyond the 200-mile limit to protect the straddling stocks that the Europeans are overfishing. The Conservatives campaigned on this before coming to power. They then reversed quickly. Now, in Orwellian doublespeak, they're claiming that giving away the store amounts to "custodial management."

Let me add a personal angle. I was vaguely aware of the arguments on both sides last spring when the government first introduced this measure. I didn't pursue it then because I gave the government some benefit of the doubt -- it was saying that this "request" clause was a proper exchange for a more rational management regime in keeping with international practice, and so forth.

Now that the combat is up close, however, the picture is clearer. Although all the elements of the argument are too complex to repeat here, I've never seen a government position so expertly reduced to mush as by Applebaum's rebuttal. With the Harper government, it's deception at worst, and incompetence at best -- a pattern we've seen before.

The question is: Why would the Harper government do this, especially since the whole thrust of Canadian fisheries policy since the 1960s has been to keep the Europeans out and stop their overfishing?

There are two theories. One is the government's incompetence in foreign affairs - an attribute displayed repeatedly on a number of issues. The other is that it's actually part of a plan in the prime minister's all-controlling mind. As Harper seems ready to give the East Coast away, one of his big policy thrusts is to affirm Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic. Is this part of a trade-off? Or what about Canadian access to European markets in a new free trade agreement? Stay tuned.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle Herald.

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