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Ottawa orders temporary shutdown of Maritime elver fishery

Unprecedented move was prompted by a sudden rise in non-commercial harvesting in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick

The multimillion-dollar baby eel or elver fishery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick has been shut down amid escalating conflict between commercial and Indigenous harvesters, according to an industry representative.

Riverside disputes and threats of violence during the spring elver fishery in 2020 rose to the point where local police intervention was required, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

A ministerial order prohibiting all elver fishing in both provinces was issued on April 27 and is in effect for 45 days.

The department order was a response to “an unexpected and significant rise in people fishing for eels under 10 centimetres in length outside the commercial fishery.”

The order says estimated elver removals were “far above the established catch limits in areas where fishing is occurring, which represents a threat to the conservation and protection of the species.”

“It is imperative that fishing of elvers stop immediately in order for the department to review the management and conservation measures for this fishery.”

According to an email from Genna Carey, president of the Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery, the overfishing that prompted the ministerial order was related to fishing from Indigenous food, social and ceremonial (FSC) licences.

Carey also said a ministerial order had never been issued to shut down the fishery before.

The order does not identify the non-commercial harvesters nor does it refer to their actions as illegal.

“Conflict on the water between harvesters has escalated to threats of violence and the safety of harvesters is at risk, which constitutes a threat to the proper management and control of the fishery,” the order states.

The department would not address whether the First Nations FSC fishery was the source of the “unexpected and significant rise,” in non-commercial harvesting that prompted the shutdown.

“This closure is across the board, and impacts commercial fishing as well as fishing for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) purposes. The combined removal of elvers by all harvesters means there is a risk that catch limits may be exceeded,” spokesperson Barre Campbell said in an email.

The department confirmed this is the first time it has shut down the elver fishery.

About elvers

Tiny and translucent, elvers are caught in dip nets during their spring migration into rivers in Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick.

Because the shutdown order remains in effect for 45 days, Carey said it will “in essence” mean the end of the 2020 season. The elvers will have moved mostly upstream and the run will be mostly, if not entirely, over by mid-June.

The eels are sold live to Asian aquaculture companies where they are grown for sale as adults.

COVID-19 has depressed the market this year but elvers still sell for $500 per kilogram.

The commercial fishery is split between nine commercial licence holders including the Waycobah First Nation in Cape Breton.

In its most recent data, Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported in 2016 landings of 4,800 kilograms were worth $15.6 million with a value per licence of $1.7 million.

Why order was issued

Environmentalist Susanna Fuller with Oceans North sits on a federal elver advisory committee. She said Fisheries and Oceans Canada had no choice but to issue the order.

“From a conservation standpoint, it’s one of the few tools that Fisheries and Oceans Canada really have that they can use to shut it down. I think it is very unfortunate. There’s been so much overharvesting,” she says.

Fuller says there are a whole series of complicating factors involved: eels are considered a threatened endangered species, culturally important to First Nations, part of reconciliation and a very valuable commercial fishery.

“I am hoping next year there could actually be a way to figure out how we allow for FSC fisheries if that’s what’s going on,” she said. “And also the commercial fishery in a way that does not further damage the health of the population.”

Black market connection

The Maritime elver fishery has also seen a black market emerge.

In 2018, Curtis Kiley was nabbed in an undercover sting targeting poachers.

He was caught trying to sell 300 kilos of elvers from the trunk of his car near the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border.

He was convicted the following year.

Kiley is not Indigenous, and the Crown prosecutor told the court he had been poaching under “the guise” of his partner’s “food, social and ceremonial fishery licence.”