The Turbot War: Canada, Spain, and Conflict Over the North Atlantic Fishery

The dispute over Northwest Atlantic fisheries conservation, dubbed "The Turbot War" in the press, marked the first military confrontation of any kind between Canada and Spain. The dispute was striking in that it involved the use of force over the issue of environmental management, generally thought to be the focus of a high degree of international cooperation. In addition to environmental management, the case presents issues of international law and the relationship between domestic and international politics. It also recounts conflict over environmental resources, the process of negotiation and renegotiation of international agreements, and the role of unilateral action in international politics. The story of the Turbot War challenges the conventional wisdom that environmental management issues are win win situations that simply involve coordination to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, and the assumption that actors have common interests when facing environmental destruction.

Frustrated by the failure of diplomatic and public relations efforts to stop overfishing by Spanish trawlers along the edge of its territorial waters in the Grand Banks, Canada took dramatic action that brought charges of "piracy" from the European Union. Canada countered with evidence that the Spanish trawler it had impounded was guilty of violating rules of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization. The action led to Spain bringing Canada before the International Court of Justice, which later disclaimed jurisdiction.

Against a background of historical practice, fisheries regulation, and increasing depletion, negotiations through the EU finally led to reapportionment of fishing quotas, a tighter regulatory regime, and easing of Canadian fisheries laws as applied to European vessels. A new basis of environmental management in the Northwest Atlantic had been established, but its impact on future conflicts remained uncertain.

The case offers three main analytic lenses. It can be used to explore the problems of common resource management, including whether they are enlightened by the "tragedy of the commons" concept. It also provides a basis to examine the challenges of addressing environmental problems through international agreements, and to consider the influence of domestic political issues and their interplay with pursuit of broader national interests through international relations. This case has been used as a basis for in class simulations and discussions in courses on International Environmental Law and International Environmental Politics.