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Spanish trawler Estai reaches port

By GILES TREMLETT

MADRID, Mar. 23 -- The factory trawler Estai was welcomed home by angry crowds at the fishing port of Vigo in northwest Spain, Thursday two weeks after being captured and fined $500,000 by Canadian authorities for fishing turbot in the North Atlantic. The deafening blast of fog horns from the city's fishing fleet boomed across Vigo as the Estai, which had one third of its catch confiscated in Canada, nosed its way into port. The ships' owners, Perreira y Hijos, claimed that the seizure of the vessel had been illegal and said they would be demanding compensation and repayment of the fine from Canada. 'We are expecting them to return our money and pay damages to ourselves and to the crew,' a company spokesman said. Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez Thursday said that his country had no intention of calling back the 17 Spanish trawlers still in the disputed North Atlantic waters. 'Canada is trying to pressure the Spanish boats into withdrawing from an area that is in international waters and which, as a result, we have a right to be in,' he told state radio RNE. 'We are, of course, refusing to leave or give any order for them to withdraw.' The European Union said Thursday it was seeking to end the feud with Canada over fishing rights by next week, but warned Ottawa that seizure of another trawler would bring talks to a halt. In a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, EU Commission President Jacques Santer proposed that negotiators shape 'a package of proposals which can be put to us after the weekend,' a spokesman said.

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However, the letter said, 'Another arrest of an EU boat fishing in international waters would make it impossible for the EU to continue to negotiate with Canada and postpone the time when a satisfactory agreement could be found.' The dispute centers around dwindling stocks of Greenland halibut, or turbot, which is cheaper than cod and processed into filets sold to Canadian, U.S. and Asian customers. In February Canada and the EU failed to agree on catch quotas for turbot in the rich Grand Banks fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Ottawa then declared a moratorium to fishing there and introduced measures to extend its jurisdiction into international waters. When a fleet of Spanish trawlers dropped their nets in the disputed area earlier in the month, a Canadian warship seized the Estai following a dramatic high-seas chase. Santer said in his letter that any solution would have to include changes to the Canadian law and a resolution to the legal dispute over the Estai. He said the European Union was prepared to lower the 69-percent quota the EU gave to itself after rejecting an international agreement, but expected Canada to show similar flexibility. 'I believe the elements necessary for a solution are on the table and that both sides should now demonstrate their readiness to move swiftly toward agreement on a package deal,' Santer said in the letter. The EU and Canada are also at odds over how to monitor fishing fleets. Canada has said the Estai's turbot catch was mainly juvenile fish taken with illegal gear. In the area where the Spanish trawler was captured, Canadian officials recovered a net with an illegally fine mesh size and a lining net with an even finer mesh. Spanish Defense Minister Julian Garcia Vargas said Thursday that a second navy patrol boat would be sent to the North Atlantic to replace the patrol boat Vigia, which is protect the Spanish and Portuguese fishing fleet in the area. (written by Giles Tremlett in Madrid with material from Bill Lamp in Brussels and Joe Chrysdale in Toronto)

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