Territorial seas have changed over time, having begun with a 3 nautical mile (6 km) "cannon shot" territorial sea, followed by the long standing extension to a 12 nautical mile (22 km) standard. The economic control of the waters surrounding nations to a two hundred nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) became recognised internationally on November 14, 1994, after having been agreed at the conference on the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. As a self-governing colony and dominion, Newfoundland's foreign policy, just as Canada's, was established by the British government until the Statute of Westminster 1931. However in 1934, Newfoundland's government came under the administration of a commission appointed by London; this situation remained until 1949 when the dominion entered Canadian Confederation.
Following Confederation, Canada recognized many of the foreign policy agreements Newfoundland had entered into – most of which had been imposed by London. During the 1950s to the 1970s, the domestic and foreign fishing fleets became increasingly industrialized, with massive factory freezer trawlers fishing out of Newfoundland ports – foreign fleets were based in Newfoundland and could fish 12 NM offshore, while domestic fleets could fish in both the territorial sea and the offshore.
By the 1970s the overfishing by industrial vessels in the waters of eastern Canada was evident, although each federal government continued to ignore the problem, and even contributed to it by using the issuance of fishing licenses for more inshore and offshore domestic vessels to political gain. Between 1973–1982 the United Nations and its member states negotiated the Third Convention of the Law of the Sea – one component of which was the concept of nations being allowed to declare an Exclusive Economic Zone. Although not formally adopted into binding international law until 1982, the possibility of declaring an EEZ became a de-facto reality in 1977 with the conclution of those sections of the Third Conference negotiations relating to maritime boundary and economic control.
Many nations worldwide declared 200 nautical mile (370 km) EEZs, including Canada and the United States. The EEZ boundaries became a foreign policy issue where overlapping claims existed, as was the case between Canada and the United States in the Gulf of Maine, Dixon Entrance, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Beaufort Sea, as well as between Canada and France in the case of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
But on the whole, the EEZ was very well received by fishermen in eastern Canada for it meant they could fish unhindered out to the limit without fear of competing with the foreign fleets. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Canada's domestic offshore fleet grew as fishermen and fish processing companies rushed to take advantage. It was also during this time when it was noticed that the foreign fleets now pushed out to 200 nautical miles (370 km) offshore and excluded from the rich Canadian waters, were increasing their harvest on the "nose" and "tail" of the Grand Banks – two areas of the continental shelf off Newfoundland which were outside the EEZ.
By the late 1980s the dwindling catches of Northern cod were being reported throughout Newfoundland and eastern Canada as the federal government and citizens of coastal regions in the area began to face the reality that the domestic and foreign overfishing had taken its toll. Scientists (see also:Appeal to authority) have also subsequently pointed out that global climate change may have also played an unfortunate complementary role, however the deed was done, and cod was no more. Reluctant to act at a time of declining political popularity, the federal government was finally forced to take drastic action in 1992 when a total moratorium was declared indefinitely for the Northern Cod.
The immediate impact was felt most in Newfoundland, followed by the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. The nascent Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, organized after the 1977 EEZ declarations to coordinate conservation efforts in Canada, the United States, and member nations in Europe (both western and eastern bloc countries), also declared a ban, however it wasn't even necessary – cod which only 5-10 years previously was being caught in record numbers, had vanished almost overnight to the point where it was considered for endangered species protection.
The economic impact in coastal Newfoundland was unprecedented – the equivalent in Ontario of permanently closing every manufacturing plant and banking headquarters, or in Alberta of closing every oil and gas-related business. To lessen the impact that its policies of permitting overfishing had exacted upon rural Newfoundlanders, the federal government swiftly created a relief program called "The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy" (TAGS) to provide short to medium term financial support, as well as employment retraining for the longer term.
Yet TAGS alone was not going to do it and Newfoundland and coastal Nova Scotia was bleeding severely as communities began to experience an out-migration on a scale not seen in Canada since the prairie dust-bowls of the 1930s. The anger at federal political figures was palpable and with the wholesale rejection of Brian Mulroney's Conservatives in 1993 (by then under the leadership of Kim Campbell), incoming prime minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals were going to face the ongoing wrath of voters whose entire livelihoods had been decimated as a result of decades of federal neglect and mismanagement, and whose communities, property values, net worth, and way of life were declining rapidly.
Canada was not alone in recognizing the growing value of the turbot, and foreign fishing fleets operating off the 200 NM EEZ were beginning to pursue the species in increasing numbers. By 1994, Canada and NAFO had tracked about 50 violations of boats crossing the 200 nautical mile (370 km) EEZ limit to fish illegally within Canadian waters, as well as recording use of illegal gear and overfishing outside Canadian waters.
The new federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Brian Tobin, directed the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to begin a very aggressive dialogue with the European Union over the presence of its fishing fleet and its practices, particularly the use of illegal trawl nets just outside the Canadian EEZ while fishing for turbot. Tobin's critics in Canada note that he was likely using his department as a political prop to shore up support during a time of increased social unrest in the region, yet in the winter of 1995 , Tobin directed DFO to establish a legal argument which could be made for the seizure of a foreign vessel in international waters using the premise of conservation.
This accomplished, DFO was directed by the minister and the federal cabinet to demonstrate Canadian resolve on the issue by "making an example" of a European Union fishing vessel. On March 9 offshore patrol aircraft indicated a likely candidate and several armed DFO offshore fisheries patrol boats, along with Canadian Coast Guard and navy support, pursued the Spanish stern trawler Estai in international waters outside Canada's 200 nautical mile (370 km) EEZ. The Estai cut its weighted trawl net and fled, resulting in a chase which stretched over several hours and ended only after the Canadian Fisheries Patrol vessel Cape Roger firing of a .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine gun across the bow of the Estai. The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfred Grenfell used high-pressure fire-fighting water cannons to deter other Spanish fishing vessels from disrupting the enforcement operation. Finally, armed DFO and RCMP officers boarded the vessel in international waters on the Grand Banks and placed it and its crew under arrest. In the following days the patrol boat P-74 Atalaya from the Spanish Navy was sent to the area to protect the Spanish fishing interests.
The DFO contracted a Fishery Products International ground fish trawler to drag for the Estai's trawl. On the first attempt it was able to successfully retrieve the Estai's net which had been cut. It was quickly determined that the Spanish vessel had been using an illegal net, with openings that were far smaller than international regulations allowed for turbot fishing. The Estai was escorted to St. John's, arriving with great fan-fare across the province and region — and the country. Canada's federal court processed the case and the charges against the crew while Spain and the European Union protested vehemently, threatening boycotts against Canada and wishing to have the case heard at the International Court of Justice.
Tobin and his department ignored the controversy and instead had the huge illegal trawl net which the Estai had cut free salvaged. Such nets sometimes can stretch for up to 30 nautical miles (48 km). The Estai was using a liner with a mesh size that was smaller than permitted (larger mesh sizes permit juvenile fish to escape and grow). The net was shipped to New York City where Tobin called an international press conference onboard a rented barge in the East River outside the United Nations headquarters. There, the net from the Estai was displayed, hanging from an enormous crane, and Tobin used the occasion to shame the Spanish and EU governments, pointing out the small size of the holes in the illegal net. Spain never denied that the net was from the Estai but continued to protest Canada's use of "extra-territorial force." The Spanish government asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands for leave to hear a case claiming Canada had no right to arrest the Estai. However, the court later refused the case. Finally Canada liberated the Estai and its crew under strong international pressure from the European Union.
The dispute raised Brian Tobin's political profile, helping preserve his political career in Newfoundland at a time when federal politicians were being increasingly vilified. It also led to his decision in 1996 to pursue to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland following the resignation of premier Clyde Wells, as well as a widely-discussed future possibility for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.