Canada shuts down elver fishery after rampant poaching, smuggling

Published on
April 21, 2023
Elvers, or glass eels, in a bucket.

The Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans has shut down the elver fishery in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia after extensive poaching led to “conservation and safety concerns.”

The DFO announced on 15 April the fishery will be closed for 45 days after poaching and smuggling of the eels left the government unable to keep tabs on how much of the fishery’s quota has been harvested. The CBC also reported that men have been arrested over confrontations over the elver fishery, and authorities seized CAD 112,000 (USD 82,752, EUR 75,296) worth of the baby eels being smuggled through the Halifax, Nova Scotia airport.

Elvers are one of the most valuable fishery products by weight in the world, and in Canada the tiny eels reached a price of CAD 5,000 (USD 3,694, EUR 3,361) per kilogram in 2022. The baby eels are sold to aquaculture operations that need them as stock to raise them for food.

The high value-per-weight makes the species a target for smuggling and poaching, and the short season can also lead to conflicts over the relatively small quota of 9,960 kilograms.

In Canada, licenses assign a commercial elver license holder to a specific river where they can harvest, with only one license holder per river. A total of eight commercial licenses and one communal commercial license exists. License holders can engage people to fish under the license, up to a maximum number “ranging from eight to twenty-eight” according to the DFO.

The high value and limited access has led to poaching in the fishery, and heavy criticism from fishers in the region who say the DFO has not done enough to prevent it. The widespread poaching has even led to threats of violence, according to the Atlantic Canada Fishermen’s Association, as poachers steal nets and assault licensed fishermen.

A report from the CBC recounts the level of violence and criminal activity in the fishery, as a nearby resident witnessed men in balaclavas with covered-up vehicle license plates poaching elvers. A report from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said a man was assaulted with a pipe in an altercation related to elver fishing.

Canadian Members of Parliament Rick Perkins and Clifford Small issued a statement calling on the DFO to stop the “unprecedented levels of poaching” occurring in the fishery.

“Once again, the Minister of Fisheries is sitting on the sidelines while a fishery is under attack from illegal commercial fishing,” the statement reads. “The Southern and Western Shores of Nova Scotia are seeing unprecedented levels of elver poaching in this year’s short season of March to June. Reports from fishing communities are that there are unlicensed commercial harvesters throughout the region from not only Nova Scotia, but from Maine, Quebec, and New Brunswick.”

In response to the calls, the DFO decided to shut down the fishery – but Perkins issued a statement following the closure that halting legal fishing won’t do anything to stop poaching and enforcement needs to be taken seriously.

“What’s DFO’s solution? Take the right to fish away from the eight license holders who fish legally on this river and other rivers. And that does nothing to stop the poachers. They were poaching yesterday, they’ll be poaching tonight, and they’ll be poaching tomorrow, and DFO has done nothing to get them off the river.” Perkins said in a social media video. “The only people being penalized are the people that abide by the law and fish in season.”  

Photo courtesy of Joyce Godsey/Shutterstock

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