DFO enforcement official says many arrested in elver fishery will face charges

A top federal fisheries enforcement official says it's likely many of those arrested this spring for illegally fishing for baby eels along Nova Scotia and New Brunswick rivers will be charged as part of enforcement efforts to try to rein in an out-of-control fishery.

Tim Kerr, the Maritime director of conservation and protection for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said he believes deterrence is working, and the department intends to bring in new measures in an attempt to make sure next year's season runs more smoothly.

"We do expect a large number of charges and subsequent court appearances and decisions to be made against individuals who have been caught harvesting elver unauthorized this year," he said in an interview Thursday.

This year's spring season for baby eels, also known as elvers, was cancelled due to concerns related to violence and poaching. DFO has been criticized by elver fishermen and federal MPs for not cracking down soon enough on unauthorized fishing, and some have questioned whether arrests are actually leading to charges.

Kerr said 107 arrests related to illegal elver fishing were made in 2023, resulting in 133 charges under the Fisheries Act, and he expected a similar ratio this year related to the 169 arrests so far.

Elver fishers are seen on a river in Halifax County, N.S. in 2023. The image is taken from a camera set up by licence holder Atlantic Elver Fishery and shows what the company says is unauthorized fishing on a river assigned exclusively to the company by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said 103 arrests were made during last year's elver season. (Submitted by Atlantic Elver Fishery)

It's not clear how many of those charged will actually face trial, however, once the cases are in the hands of federal prosecutors. In one recent case, the Crown ended without explanation the prosecution of five Mi'kmaw men claiming they had a treaty right to fish for elvers.

Unauthorized elver fishing has soared in recent years due to demand from Asia, where they are shipped live and then grown to maturity for food.

Kerr said DFO is seeking to develop a traceability system that would be similar to the one deployed in Maine, where the elver fishery is electronically monitored in real time, with fishermen using fobs or QR codes to log the catch they sell.

A similar system in Canada would allow anyone who has elvers in their possession, from the fisherman on the river to the exporter at an airport, the ability to show where the tiny eels were harvested and prove they were caught legally, Kerr said.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans posted this photograph from an elver seizure on May 31, 2024, at a facility in Dartmouth, N.S.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans posted this photograph from an elver seizure this May at a facility in Dartmouth, N.S. (DFO Maritimes/X)

Stanley King, an elver fisherman, said this week the commercial sector has long been in favour of a traceability system, and is frustrated DFO would not introduce one early enough to potentially avoid this year's shutdown.

"We only have nine months left until the next season," he said. "So we are very concerned, industry is very concerned that we won't have that."

On Thursday, DFO also released a statement about the concerns raised by commercial licence holders who were told this week the department is considering handing a substantial part of their quotas to First Nations and potentially other new operators.

Some licence holders have said they are in favour of greater First Nations access to the fishery, but want DFO to buy their licences and are upset at the prospect of losing a sizable chunk of quota with no compensation.

The department said the costs of fishing for elvers is much lower than other fisheries, as it doesn't require a boat and is done using nets at the riverside. Lobster, by contrast, requires much higher investment, including a boat and specialized gear.

DFO said that's why it's not entertaining a "willing buyer, willing seller" scenario where the department will purchase elver licences from those agreeing to sell them.

"Given the significant increases in elver value and relatively low input costs, the commercial elver fishery presents a unique opportunity to broaden the distribution of the prosperity that can be generated among various types of harvesters," the statement said.

Reallocating quota, the department said, is a step toward reconciliation by "reducing the long-standing socio-economic gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick."