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100s of baby eel poachers hit Maritime rivers each day before fishery was closed, says DFO

Fisheries and Oceans Canada's top enforcement officer in the Maritimes says an "unprecedented" number of poachers descended on Nova Scotia and New Brunswick rivers this spring to illegally remove baby eels, also known as elvers.

Prices as high as $5,000 per kg attracted illegal activity

hundreds of tiny eels held in cupped hands.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada's top enforcement officer in the Maritimes says an "unprecedented" number of poachers descended on Nova Scotia and New Brunswick rivers this spring to illegally remove baby eels, also known as elvers.

They overwhelmed the department's ability to safely and sustainably manage the most lucrative fishery, by weight, in Canada.

"Every day the total number of harvesters that didn't have an authorization that we either observed or that were reported to us, numbered in the hundreds," said Timothy Kerr, director of conservation and protection for the Maritime region with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

Some were Indigenous people and some were not, he said.

All were attracted by an elver fishery that sells for $5,000 a kilogram.

The translucent juvenile American eels, also known as glass eels, are sold live and grown for food.

A man with short hair and facial hair wears a grey shirt with a blue lanyard.

In an interview with CBC, Kerr said the sheer volume of illegal fishing posed a conservation threat.

"The fact we didn't know what was coming out of the river due to the numbers of unauthorized harvesters and unreported removals meant we couldn't manage this fishery and there was significant risk to the species and that's why it was shut down."

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray issued an order last weekend closing the Maritime elver fishery, citing conservation and safety concerns due to incidents of harassment and violence near some rivers.

The regulated fishery has a total allowable catch of 9,640 kilos shared between nine commercial licence holders, including the We'koqma'q First Nation in Cape Breton.

Two more communal commercial licences have been issued to two Indigenous groups in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to support the treaty right to a moderate livelihood from fishing.

DFO has accepted individual management plans developed by First Nations.

Some commercial licence holders say they are being unfairly penalized.

On Wednesday, commercial licence holder Wine Harbour Fisheries served notice it is seeking a judicial review to quash the shutdown order.

Wine Harbour had only landed 33 kilos of its 1,000-kilogram quota before the shutdown.

DFO not doing its job, commercial licence holder says

In its notice it said, "To the extent there is unauthorized fishing this is due to the DFO's failure to properly enforce the law and prevent unauthorized fishing."

The company fishes a remote section of Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore. It says it provided DFO with detailed information about incidents including photos of individuals, video and licence plates without a response.

Kerr says fishery officers could not be everywhere at once given that there are over 100 elver-bearing rivers in Nova Scotia and 90 in New Brunswick.

DFO river patrols and seizures

"Due to the sheer volume and the sheer numbers of harvesters we weren't able to respond to every single case or piece of information we received. But I can assure you that DFO officers and fishery officers were out there on the job every day doing controls at the rivers, making arrests, seizures, where we could."

DFO says it did 741 river patrols.

Kerr says officers, in coordination with other federal agencies, also monitored holding facilities, border crossings between provinces, between Canada and the United States, ferries and airports including Toronto.

Brown squiggley eels lay at the bottom of a white bucket

"We have investigations and I can't get into details, but we are being successful in deterring and disrupting export of elver at those exit points," Kerr said.

Since the shutdown, DFO has increased the number of enforcement personnel on the elver fishery, bringing in people from outside the Maritimes and reassigning others from within the region.

Conservation risk

"Fishery officers across the region have conducted patrols of rivers. They've made some arrests and seizures of gear. But by and large we've seen what I believe to be an acknowledgement, and I guess cooperation from individuals who previously were harvesting," he said.

Kerr was referring to Indigenous people belonging to First Nations that are not part of the DFO-approved elver fishery. They have asserted their treaty to fish without DFO approval in numerous encounters with DFO.

He said they appear to have backed off.

"I guess I would say that I believe that is the case. I would also say that, after having conversations with many of the leaders of the First Nations in our region, that every First Nation does set — as a priority — conservation of all species that their members fish," he said.

"We've demonstrated through our observations there's an unprecedented number of unauthorized harvesters which leads to us not being able to track the removals, … they accept that there is a conservation risk."


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