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Lithuania: Trawler Finally Set To Leave Canada

  • Carol Macivor

Ottawa, 1 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The saga of a Lithuanian trawler crew stranded on the east coast of Canada for the last six months is nearly over and the 24 crew members will head home.

The crew of the shrimp trawler "Sheduva" has been docked in the small Newfoundland port of Harbour Grace since September when it arrived to unload shrimp caught in the North Atlantic. A local company had agreed to buy the shrimp from the vessel's Lithuanian owner, UAB Azalija.

It was the fourth such trip last year to Harbour Grace for the ship. However, according to a sworn affadavit, the crew claims not to have been paid for two trips and, when they were unable to collect their money from the ship's owner, announced they were on strike. They refused to leave port. The owners flew over a new crew but the strikers would not hand over command of the ship.

Problems escalated. In November, one of the directors of UAB Azalija, Saulius Staskus, was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and charged with threatening crew members. The crew hired a lawyer and filed a court action to prevent the owners from removing the "Sheduva." In a separate legal action, the crew has filed a claim for nearly $200,000 in back wages, airfare to Lithuania and punitive damages. A third law suit was launched to have ownership of the vessel turned over to the crew.

Throughout the ordeal, the men were stranded on their rusty ship without food and money -- and with a harsh Canadian winter ahead. Local townspeople discovered the crew had no food and started digging into their own pockets. What makes the story remarkable is that the small town of 4,000 -- a fishing port since the 1500's -- is in the midst of a deep recession, with the closure of several fish processing plants. Most of the help came from people who are on welfare, unemployment benefits or workers' compensation.

The crew spent the six months aboard the ship in cramped quarters. They had only Russian-language videos, a backgammon game and a few decks of cards to pass the time. They used fuel on the ship to power a generator for electricity and heat. But the fuel ran out last month. The town helped provide more but there is little on the vessel to block out the fierce winter winds blowing in from the North Atlantic.

The principal of the local high school, Jack Rose, says students organized food drives and helped deliver food to the men on the "Sheduva." He says "people here know that no matter how bad your circumstances, there are always people in greater need. It is plenty in the midst of poverty. The crew represented fishermen in need and people realized it could be their father or brother or uncle and we can't see these people going hungry." Local churches and unions donated money and organized dinners.

Lew Noel, chairman of the Harbour Grace Harbour Authority, tells RFE/RL that the Authority stepped in on a strictly humanitarian basis.

"We noticed the men were getting skinnier and we were afraid the stress might cause some of them to jump over the side," he said. "These were people who were very proud and reluctant to take charity."

Finally, Lithuania's Charge d'affaires, Jonas Paslauskas got involved. Helped by an anonymous donation of $30,000 from a Newfoundland company, the stalemate has now been broken. The money will cover part of the crew's wages and flights home to Lithuania. The men are scheduled to leave Canada on Friday -- a year after leaving home.

The crew intends to go ahead with the court cases. Their lawyer says the owners have agreed to give up the "Sheduva," but final approval is still needed by the Newfoundland Federal Court.

And the crew members are grateful to the people of Harbour Grace. In a note written to a local radio station, crew member Kazys Dichkus says, "I have been to many countries but Newfoundland people here are the best in the world. I have no words to say what I think about these people."