DFO claims elver enforcement has resulted in ‘significant deterrence’ of black market fishery

The top enforcement officer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in the Maritimes says arrests and seizures are “having a significant deterrence ” on unauthorized elver fishing this spring.

“This is due to the sheer number of officers we have on patrol. The number of arrests we’ve made and the vehicles we’ve seized,” Tim Kerr of the conservation and protection branch said in a briefing to stakeholders on Thursday.

The department also said it intends to launch public consultations as soon as next month on long-promised regulations to choke off the black market trade.

The tiny, translucent baby eels are netted by the hundreds each spring as they migrate into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick rivers. They’re shipped live to Asia where they are grown to adulthood for food.

Before the chaotic fishery was closed in 2023, the average price was $4,400 a kilo. In 2022, they fetched $5,000.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier did not allow the elver fishery to open in 2024 on the grounds the department could not safely manage the fishery. For years it has seen what the department calls rampant poaching, violence and intimidation.

‘They’re right on top of it’

Kerr told an advisory committee that fishery officers from the Pacific, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Gulf region have been brought in to disrupt the illegal fishery.

Enforcement has so far resulted in the seizure of 157 kilos of elvers, 21 vehicles and hundreds of nets.

“I would say we are doing something. We’ve made 132 arrests,” Kerr told the meeting.

Mike Townsend is the vice-president of Shelburne Elver. (CBC)

Mike Townsend of Shelburne Elver Group, a commercial licence holder, was on hand.

He says the beefed-up enforcement appears to be working in his area. 

“I am satisfied this year with what I’ve been seeing. It seems like [conservation and protection] has been doing regular patrols and anything that comes up at all, they seem like they’re right on top of it,” Townsend told CBC News.

Some Mi’kmaq say DFO rules do not apply to them

“Our own members have seen the activity and witnessed some of the poaching. That seemed to get cleaned up really quickly … they’ve decided to put the hammer down and actually, you know, make arrests,” he said.

One complication is that many of the unauthorized harvesters are Mi’kmaq who say they are asserting their treaty right to catch elvers and do not need DFO approval. The department still considered their actions poaching.

Several First Nations have reached arrangements with DFO for approved elver fisheries and they too were shut out of the fishery this year.

Some commercial licence holders allege the federal government is reluctant to charge Mi’kmaq harvesters claiming they are executing a treaty right.

Rules coming to choke off illegal trade

Kerr said Thursday arrests resulted in charges in 2021, 2022 and 2023. And he expects the after-arrest files handed to federal prosecutors “more than likely will proceed to court.”

Fisheries and Oceans was supposed to have new regulations to bolster oversight of the fishery in time for the 2024 season, but missed that deadline.

DFO policy manager Marc Clensen outlined the new possession and export licence requirements that will take effect in time for next year.

They will spell out when, where and how elvers can be moved within and exported from Canada.

They will require verification by a fishery officer of export container packaging, weighing and sealing.

Mixing legally caught Canadian elvers with foreign caught, or unlawfully collected Canadian elvers will be an offence.

Recording keeping and reporting plan

“We are going to create a chain of record keeping and reporting that tracks the movement of elvers through the supply chain to their final destination,” Clemsen said Thursday.

Kerr said these regulations will apply to Indigenous moderate livelihood fisheries.

Townsend says he believes they will be effective in thwarting illegal trade.

“It will definitely make a difference from what I’ve seen today. This is the first time I’ve actually seen what those regulations might do in their presentation and I think that they will curtail a lot of that. And I hope for the sake of the fishery that it does do the job,” Townsend said.

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