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Risk and Reward

It’s no secret to anyone semi-aware of commercial fishing in the Martimes that baby eels, or elvers, is Canada’s most lucrative fishery by weight.

Coming in at around $5,000 per kilogram, these small, translucent creatures are shipped to Asia — Japan, in particular — to satisfy an enormous appetite for eel. In fact, the Japanese delicacy kabayaki accounts for around 70 per cent of the global consumption of freshwater eels.

Japanese and European eels have suffered from overfishing for the benefit of the human palate, being classified as endangered and critically endangered, respectively. Since 2010, the sale of European elvers has been banned.

Conservation, however, rarely factors into international demand. As such, American eels became the next on the chopping block. American elvers are shipped to countries in Asia, where they are bred to full size before being consumed.

The demand for elvers became so massive that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) was unable to keep up with poaching, reports of violence and intimidation and black-market trading surrounding these small, translucent creatures.

As such, DFO has shut down the elver fishery altogether since April of 2023.

“The elver fishery is not open for 2024 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, therefore any harvesting is unauthorized,” said a DFO press release.

“Should anyone choose to fish for elver, they will be subject to enforcement action as per the Fisheries Act and the Maritime Provinces Fishery Regulations.”

While harvesting elvers is obviously a lucrative gig for any harvester looking to make a living in the Maritimes, the risk of being subject to Fisheries Act and Maritime Provinces Fishery Regulations has far outweighed the reward for the individuals who have been caught by fishery officers.

As of May 22, 2024, 154 people have been arrested in relation to elvers. These individuals often have their vehicles, fyke nets, dip nets and elvers seized upon arrest on top of fines ranging in the thousands of dollars. Enforcement isn’t just enacted at the shoreline either, as seen when the Canada Border Services Agency seized $500,000 worth of elvers in Toronto’s Pearson International Airport in May.

In no uncertain terms, DFO has made it clear that the department has stepped up its game to combat the illegal fishing of elvers.

“Our message is crystal clear: do not travel to Nova Scotia to illegally fish or export elvers this year, enforcement officers will be waiting for you,” said Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier.

Many responsible harvesters, however, have their qualms with the punitive measures taken by DFO. To many, the blanket ban on these young eels have painted criminals and legitimate harvesters with the same broad stroke. It’s easy to empathize with an honest businessperson that has had their livelihood swept from under them.

Unfortunately, for those who were making an honest living off elvers, the law is the law. While there have been calls from the Parliamentary Fisheries and Oceans committee, the Conservative Party of Canada and local Members of Parliament to overturn the blanket ban in favour of increased enforcement for poachers, the law still remains in effect.

Maybe the Department of Fisheries and Oceans under the current Liberal government will come up with a better plan to tackle the double-edged sword that is poaching and conservation of American eels. Maybe, come 2025, the Conservatives will come into power and overturn the regulation all-together. Or maybe the elver fishery will hang in limbo, where criminals and traditional harvesters are lumped together for the foreseeable future.

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future of eel harvesting in Canada’s Maritimes going forward. But one thing is for certain — the reward for a kilo of elver doesn’t outweigh the risk of getting caught.