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The Lobster War – When Brazil and France argued whether lobsters crawl or swim

Boban Docevski

Some reasons for disputes between countries through history are as bizarre as human imagination can allow. In this particular case from the 1960s, Brazil and France went into conflict because of lobsters and who had the right to hunt them. Luckily, no one got hurt during this so-called “Lobster War.” So what was this all about?

The whole incident began in 1961 when some French fishermen that had fished successfully off the coast of Mauritania decided to try their luck on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. After trying out a few locations, they found an excellent spot off the coast of Brazil where lobsters thrived at depths of 250–650 ft.

A Brazilian cruiser and four Fletcher class vessels

The sudden increase of French vessels in the area didn’t go unnoticed by the local Brazilian fishermen. They reported that a large number of French fishing boats were illegally catching lobsters off the state of Pernambuco. The Brazilian Navy reacted to the complaints and Admiral Arnoldo Toscano and ordered two corvettes to verify the reports. They discovered that the allegations were correct and soon the Brazilian vessels demanded that the fleet of French fishing boats returns to deeper waters, away from the coast of Brazil. Unfortunately, the French were uncooperative and believed that they had every right to trap lobsters in those waters. They immediately sent a message to the French government, asking for their own fleet of military vessels in the area. This act forced the Brazilian army to mobilize all their ships in a state of alert.

Although every conflict between two countries is a serious matter, we must admit that this one descended into the ridiculous. On the same day when Brazil mobilized its entire fleet, their minister of foreign affairs, Hermes Lima, stated the following:

“The attitude of France is inadmissible, and our government will not retreat. The lobster will not be caught.”

At the same time, Charles de Gaulle was furious about the whole situation. He believed that Brazil had acted disrespectfully towards France. On 21 February 1961, De Gaulle decided to dispatch their 2750-ton T 53 class destroyer Tartu to keep the fishing boats safe. Tartu never arrived to meet with the fishing boat fleet; it was intercepted and repelled by a Brazilian cruiser and an aircraft carrier.

The Brazilians had the upper hand in the whole situation. Their president, João Goulart, gave the French forces 48 hours to withdraw, an ultimatum that they refused. After this, the Brazilian Navy managed to capture the French vessel Cassiopée.

The French T 53 class destroyer Tartu in 1963

Although no shots were fired, the situation was tense. The Brazilians denied access to French fishermen within 100 miles of the Brazilian northeast coast. Their main argument was that lobsters “crawl along the continental shelf” and therefore they belong to Brazil. The French, on the other side, claimed that “lobsters swim” and therefore they belong to everybody that catches them in the ocean.

It was April 1963, and the conflict was still unresolved. Both of the disputed sides started to consider if a conflict over lobsters was worth a war. After both sides had decided that the best path was diplomacy, the issue was taken to an international court.

A Caribbean spiny lobster

The “Lobster War” officially ended on 10 December 1964 after an agreement was signed by both Brazil and France. The whole incident was resolved by Brazil expanding its territorial waters to a 200-mile zone which encompassed the infamous lobster area. The agreement also allowed 26 French fishing ships to catch lobsters there over a period of five years.

Although the military conflict ended with the official agreement, the “scientific” argument continued until 1966. Both French and Brazilian scientists had their theories about the actual movement of crustaceans. The Administrative Tribunal of Rennes recognized the French theory that lobsters are like fish and they swim in the open ocean. Because of this reason they can not be considered as the property of any country. Brazil, on the other hand, claimed that lobsters are like oysters and remain down on the ocean floor, as a part of the continental shelf.

Brazilian president João Goulart and French president Charles de Gaulle during the 1960s

There is one statement that probably best explains this disagreement. Admiral Paulo Moreira da Silva was Brazil’s expert in the field of oceanography during the 1960s. Once during the debates, he said that accepting the French thesis that lobsters are like fish and “leap” on the ocean floor is like Brazilians claiming that when kangaroos “hop” they should be considered as birds.

Here is another story from us: An ordinary day in the life of fishermen on the docks of Fulton Fish Market, NY

This whole conflict maybe sounds farcical, but ultimately it played a big role in establishing United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.