Citing conservation and safety concerns, the elver fishery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick was shut down by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) this spring, leaving licence holders with empty nets and unanswered questions.
By way of a Fisheries Management Order, the elver fishery was closed on April 15 by DFO for 45 days, ending the season.
“All elver harvesting is now prohibited and subject to enforcement action. DFO will continue to work closely with the RCMP and local police to monitor and address criminal activity and reports of threats, intimidation or violence,” said the department.
DFO says from March 13 to April 10, fishery officers conducted 741 patrols of rivers where elver fishing was observed, resulting in arrests and seizures and on-going investigations. “In addition, conflicts have escalated to violence and threats, risking the safety of harvesters and constituting a threat to the proper management and control of the fishery. Closing the elver fishery is a required response to address these combined risks.”
There are nine licences in the elver fishery: eight commercial licences and one communal commercial licence. Each licence holder can engage people to fish under their licence up to a maximum number, ranging from eight to twenty-eight fishers depending on the licence. In 2017, a total of 175 participants were authorized to fish under the nine licences. One elver licence is collectively owned by 17 former large eel fishers, but the rest are owned by an individual, company or First Nation.
Each licence holder is limited to fishing within a set of specified rivers and streams, which are unique to that licence holder. There are 75 rivers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick designated for the elver fishery. The baby eels are harvested and sold for grow-out.
Atlantic Canada Eels, a family-owned enterprise in Eastern Passage, is one of the licence holders. “We are really devastated and we don’t see a future in it,” says Dawn Reiss, whose husband was one of the first licence holders in the fishery in 1996.
Reiss said they only caught 10 per cent of their quota before DFO shut the fishery down.
“DFO said one of the reasons they shut us down was because the illegal and legal catch combined were in excess of the TAC (total allowable catch) 9,960 kg. To date, DFO has not given us any evidence supporting this position,” says Reiss.
The closure means lost income for 20 employees and loss of sales for the company. Gone too are supply purchases from local businesses for gear, equipment, fuel, vehicles and packing supplies.
The annual direct benefit from the elver fishery to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick is $50 million annually and the indirect benefits are three times that, says Reiss.
“It’s just devastating, sad, and all the new money that would be brought into this province that we sorely need is not coming into the province, it’s going into some black market.”
Reiss said poaching has been an ongoing problem.
“It’s been an issue for several years. We’ve been talking with DFO and warning them for several years because what we ship overseas, we’re very aware of what’s happening in the world of eels generally. We could see it was coming here. We kept telling DFO they’ve got to get on top of this and they kept putting it off. It’s because of the value of the resource and ease of access it has attracted many bad actors. It’s a worldwide problem.”
Over the years, the elver fishery was developed into one of the most highly regulated fisheries in Canada, says Reiss. License conditions, that were once one page, are now nine pages long.
“We are heartbroken to watch the fishery collapse because of the poor management by DFO and the lack of enforcement by C&P (conservation and protection). What little enforcement there has been, the poachers caught are not being prosecuted. We know C&P wants to do more, however they have not been given the resources or the will to arrest and those arrested are not prosecuted.”
Reiss said DFO’s mandate to bring in new Indigenous interests into the fishery which all licence holders support “has been poorly managed by DFO. We realize our little fishery that began in 1996 has become quite the complicated fishery. It’s a very valuable product, conservation issues are very important, international trade, reconciliation, black market, organized crime, proper management is crucial. We lay this at the feet of DFO. We’ve always had a good relationship with DFO. Now we’re left out of the picture completely.”