The Turbot War


The turbot war was a dispute between Canada and Spain which took place in 1995. The rights to fish in certain territories were the cause of the conflict, and the world saw the lengths countries would go to in order to protect their fisheries. The Turbot War was a major international diplomatic incident and led to long-term change in the management and protection of fishing grounds.

Fishing rights for Greenland turbot (a species called halibut in Britain) led to the Turbot War.

 After the Grand Banks Collapse

Following the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery Canada’s fishing industry was struggling. In less than a decade cod had declined from record catch levels to a species needing protection to survive. This dramatic decline in fish stocks meant that around 50,000 jobs had been lost in the Canadian commercial fishing industry and many communities had been devastated by the loss of their main, sometime only, source of income. In an attempt to revive their fish stocks Canada had declared a total moratorium on cod fishing and imposed strict rules meaning that only a limited number of trawlers could go out fishing for other species, and those that did had a number of measures imposed – such as having to use nets with a wide mesh to allow undersized fish to avoid capture. While waiting for these measures to take effect the Canadian government was desperately searching for a new species of fish to catch in a sustainable way. They eventually settled on Greenland turbot. This was a species that was relatively plentiful in Canadian waters and had a growing reputation as a tablefish and therefore an increasing economic value.

Grand Banks EEZ
Map showing the Canadian Exclusive Economic Zone around the coastline.

However, other countries were also targeting the Greenland turbot, often fishing right on the edge of Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and using fishing gear which was illegal under Canadian law, such as small-mesh nets. The Canadians also claimed that foreign vessels had quotas that were set too high, fished too intensively and their overfishing on the edge of the EEZ was going to undo all the conservation measures that Canada had put in place to restore their fish stocks. Canada had limited its catch of Greenland turbot to 27,000 tons a year to ensure that it did not go the same way as the Grand Banks cod, but EU trawlers were taking a further 50,000 tons. There was a growing sense of frustration from Canadian fishermen who felt like they were having to suffer the economic hardship of limiting turbot catches while EU vessels decimated stocks just outside their EEZ.

Species Confusion

UK Turbot
The fish called turbot in the UK.

Confusion about the species being discussed here often arises due to the differing names given to fish species in different countries. People in Canada generally call the fish in question Greenland turbot, and so this whole episode has become know as the Turbot War. However, the Canadians also refer to this fish as Greenland halibut, and from a UK perspective we would understand this fish to be a halibut. Despite what some books and internet articles say, the large, circular flatfish British people call a turbot in Britain (Scophthalmus maximus) has absolutely nothing to do with this incident.

Canada Takes Action

The situation came to a head in 1995 when Canadian minister Brian Tobin, director of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) decided that Canada needed to show how serious it was about protecting its waters by making an example of a foreign vessel. On 9th March a Canadian air patrol plane spotted the Spanish factory-freezer trawler Estai fishing twenty-eight miles outside of the EEZ. Coast guard and Canadian navy vessels, led by the CCGS (Canadian Coast Guard Ship) Sir Wilfred Grenfell, were launched and headed towards the Spanish trawler. On spotting the approaching Canadian vessels the skipper of the Estai, Captain Enrique Davila Gonzalez, ordered the crew to cut the nets of their own ship and sailed the ship away from the Canadians at top speed.

CCGS Sir Wilfred Grenfell
CCGS Sir Wilfred Grenfell was sent to intercept the Estai.

After being pursued for several hours the Estai only stopped when the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Cape Roger fired a burst of machine gun fire across its bows, and warned that the next shots would be aimed at the Estai itself. By this time other Spanish fishing boats had come to assist the Estai and had to be held off by high-pressure water cannons from the Sir Wilfred Grenfell while the Estai was boarded by DFO officers. They crew were held while the DFO enlisted a Canadian trawler to retrieve the Estai’s net from the seabed. When the Spanish vessel’s net was recovered it was found to have a much smaller mesh than Canadian law allowed, meaning that the Spanish vessel had been fishing illegally. The crew of the Estai were arrested and the Spanish ship was towed back to the Canadian city of St. John’s, a job that took 48-hours. The Canadians made the most of the publicity. A crowd of 5000 people gathered to see the Estai being impounded in St. John’s harbour, and Brian Tobin later arranged a press conference in New York outside of the United Nations headquarters. Tobin had the Estai’s net suspended from a crane and spoke to the world’s media, describing in detail how the mesh on the net was smaller than Canadian law allowed. Tobin was steadfast in his view that Canadian law applied in the waters where the Estai was fishing and that Canada had the legal authority to take action against the Spanish vessel and arrest the crew.

The Situation Escalates

Serviola Class Gunboat
Spain sent a Serviola-class gunboat, armed with machine guns and 3-inch cannon, to protect its trawlers.

Spain were furious and demanded the immediate release of the Estai and its crew. They claimed that Canada had no right to arrest the crew of the ship, and although the net was illegal under Canadian law they were fishing outside of Canada’s EEZ in international waters where there are no laws governing mesh size. Canada cited the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which stated that they had the legal right to protect fish stocks that straddle their EEZ and international waters, and Canadian law applied to vessels fishing in these waters. The Canadians claims were further strengthened when an independent inspection of the Estai reported back: 70-80 per cent of fish the Spanish vessel had caught were undersized or protected, and a false bulkhead revealed secret storage tanks that contained twenty-five tons of the heavily protected American plaice – a species which had been under moratorium since 1992 due to heavily reduced stocks. Furthermore, the captain had two differing sets of logbooks recording his catch – a favourite trick of corrupt skippers who catch way over their quota then submit one logbook containing correct figures to the authorities while keeping the true figures in the other logbook for their own use. The reasons why the Estai cut its nets and tried to flee the Canadian forces were now apparent.

European countries were split over who they supported in the dispute. Britain and Ireland took Canada’s side, while, despite the obvious wrong doing of the Estai, the European Union supported Spain, with Icelandbeing particularly vocal in their support for the Spanish. By this point the dispute had descended into name-calling, with the Spanish claiming the Canadians had behaved like “pirates”, while Canada accused Spain of being “conservation criminals” and “cheats.” Germany lent naval support to the Spanish, while British Prime Minister John Major risked turning the EU community against Britain by coming out with strong public support for the Canadians. When the issue of bringing trade sanctions against Canada was brought up Major made it clear that Britain would be opposed to any attempt to impose such sanctions against Canada, and since these proposals required unanimous support from all EU countries Major’s opposition stopped the sanctions from going ahead. Many British and Irish trawlers began flying the Canadian flag to show which side they supported in the dispute. This led to the British trawler Newlyn being challenged by a French patrol boat which thought it was a Canadian ship as it was flying the Canadian flag. The French backed down when they realised the ship was British and no further action was taken.

Canada later released Captain Gonzalez and the crew of the Estai, and shortly afterwards the Estai itself was released after the ship’s owners paid a $500,000 fine, and the ship sailed back to its home port of Vigo in north-west Spain. However, Canada would not enter into any negotiations until all foreign fishing vessels left the disputed area on the edge of the EEZ. Spain steadfastly refused this and sent trawlers back there, this time with a Spanish navy Serviola-class patrol boat to protect them. Spain also began to prepare a more serious task force consisting of frigates and tankers to head to the area. In late March talks between the two nations broke down and Canadian vessels began cutting the nets of Spanish trawlers. The situation began to escalate when Spain sent another patrol boat to the area and Canada increased the number of naval vessels and air patrols across the edge of their EEZ. It was also reported that the Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétein had authorised his navy to fire at any armed Spanish Navy ships sailed in or around Canada’s EEZ.


Realising that there was a very real possibility of actual combat breaking out over the dispute the EU put pressure on Spain to agree to a deal and on 5 April an agreement was reached. Under this agreement Spain was forced to leave the disputed zone and Canada’s right to eject foreign fishing vessels from the area using military force was accepted. Under the deal Canada’s own Greenland turbot quota was reduced, and they refunded the $500,000 fine to the owners of the Estai. The incident was over but it was remarkable how close two nations which were both NATO members and had previously been close allies had came to armed conflict over the issue of fishing grounds. The international community was also taken by surprise over Canada’s aggression and how proactive they had been in using armed vessels to protect their fisheries. This was seen as a result of the Grand Banks collapse and the devastation this had caused – Canada had seen major economic hardship due fish stocks collapsing and were not going to stand by and see their turbot stocks decimated by foreign vessels in the way their cod stocks had been

Brian Tobin - The Terbotinator
Brian Tobin – The Terbotinator

The whole incident worked wonders for the political career of Brian Tobin. His poll rating had been slipping prior to the Turbot War but his forceful protection of Canadian interests saw a revival of his fortunes, and he was even given the nicknames ‘Captain Canada’ and ‘The Turbotinator’. Claims that the Turbot War was a media-orientated stunt to deflect attention from high levels of unemployment found little traction, with The Halifax Evening News writing “Few events have brought such a sense of common cause across the sprawling, argumentative width of Canada as the clash with Spanish trawlers”. Tobin was elected Premier of Newfoundland in 1996 and served a four-year term before becoming Industry Minister in 2000. He retired from politics in 2002 and took up a career in business.