Canada cancels elver season citing harassment, threats, and violence against fishery officers

Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier addressing the crowd at Seafood Expo North America
Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Diane Lebouthillier addressing the crowd at Seafood Expo North America | Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource
4 Min

Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Minister Diane Lebouthillier has canceled the country's elver fishery in 2024 after a chaotic season in 2023 was cut short due to poaching and instances of violence. 

The DFO shut down the elver fishery in April 2023 after rampant poaching and media reports of violence and criminal activity. With limited licenses and an extremely high value by weight – elvers were being bought for CAD 5,000 (USD 3,710, EUR 3,396) per kilogram in 2022 – the DFO has frequently busted poachers and smugglers.  

The problem has cropped back up this year in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, with the DFO announcing it has already made arrests and seizures on rivers for unauthorized elver fishing. The department said it arrested five individuals under investigation for infractions related to unauthorized elver harvesting, and fishery officers seized two vehicles, a fyke net, eight dip nets, elver fishing equipment, and 1.14 kilograms of elvers.

“Fishery officers are patrolling rivers, facilities, and export points to deter and disrupt unauthorized elver harvest, sale, and export from the region,” the DFO said.

As the DFO considered how to enforce rules and control the fishery, Lebouthillier issued a statement that her administration is committed to conservation of American eel and elvers and that the DFO needs to make changes to ensure a sustainable fishery. 

“I have carefully considered all options on whether the existing circumstances would enable a sustainable and orderly elver fishery this year,” Lebouthillier said. “In light of all these considerations, it is clear that without significant changes, the risks to conservation of the species cannot be addressed, and orderly management of the fishery cannot be restored.”

Lebouthillier cited threats against fishery officers last year – along with multiple incidents of violence and confrontations – as an immediate threat to the management of the fishery and a major reason behind the closure. With all fishing banned, fishery officers can target illegal activity more easily, she said. 

“This will assist our fishery officers in addressing unauthorized harvesting,” Lebouthillier said. “I know that the harvesting of elver, and of other species, is significant to the economic health of coastal communities. That said, responsible resource management and public safety must be paramount.”

The decision to close the fishery was heavily criticized by elver fishers and the Liberal party of Canada, some members of whom called the move akin to ceding the fishery to criminals and punishing the good actors in the fishery.

The Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery (CCSEF), a nonprofit created to represent the elver fishery in Canada, called the move unfair. 

“The Minister of Fisheries wants to close the 2024 elver season. She says the fishery is too dangerous because of poachers, but her only plan is to take 1,100 licensed elver fishers off the water and let the criminals have their way,” the CCSEF said on its website. “We think that is unfair to hardworking Maritimers, and we think it means she is choosing to support organized crime, rather than law-abiding fishers.”

The Liberal caucus also said that not opening the elver fishery “will only lead to more illegal activity and violence.” 

“This decision punishes legal license holders and will do nothing to stop the illegal harvesting of elvers in our waterways,” Zach Churchill, an oppostion leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, said in a statement. “We’re concerned this move will escalate tensions and lead to more illegal activity and increased violence in the region.”

The party said that there were more than 1,400 reports of illegal elver harvesting in 2023, but only 60 Fisheries Act charges and zero prosecutions. 

Lebouthillier said her department is working on regulatory and management changes that are needed to reopen the elver fishery, and that the fishery will be reopened only when those changes are fully implemented.

“The reopening of the elver fishery will only be possible with the cooperation of all those interested in this fishery, a combined focus on the conservation of this species, and a collective commitment to safe and orderly conduct,” she said.

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