Reports of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans charging a Newfoundland man because his 12-year-old son was selling smelt fish for pocket cash has sparked debate online about the lengths the agency went to squash the operation.
Donnie Harris’ son Jayden began catching smelt, a small fish often served fried, and selling them in order to earn extra money, the father told Yahoo Canada News.
Harris, who lives 30 minutes outside Gander, Nfld., posted an online classified ad offering the fish for $2/dozen and says neither he nor his son realized that selling the fish without a licence was illegal under the province’s Fisheries Act — until a DFO officer showed up at their door to buy some fish, he said.
“We’re active outdoors people. My kids love salmon fishing, fly fishing, rabbit catching, whatever there is to do when it comes to outdoor activities. That’s the type of kids they are and that’s all it is,” the Gander Bay man told Yahoo Canada News. “We never, ever poached anything in our life. Why this all come down, I have no idea.”
A spokesperson for the DFO told CBC News that they had acted after reports from the public about “sales of large-scale quantities of smelt” in the area. A minor was never under investigation, spokesperson Lloyd Slaney said, and charges have not yet been laid.
Spokespeople for the DFO were not immediately available for comment to Yahoo Canada News.
Following the visit, Harris posted a NL Classifieds ad offering smelt for free, and going on to allege that the charges stemmed from what he called a “sting operation.”
He initially didn’t tell his son, who arrived home from school about 20 minutes after the DFO came by, that he had been charged. Instead he explained that an officer had come by and said that selling the fish was illegal and had to stop.
But when he updated the classified ad the information spread quickly and his son soon learned about the charge, he says. His son was initially upset but has been buoyed by some of the supportive online response, Harris said, who is not in the fishery by trade and said this incident has been his first contact with the DFO.
In the ad, Harris said that he had been charged for selling smelt illegally, and that neither of the two DFO officers living in his small community had previously told him or his son that their operation was against the law.
The DFO reportedly told local radio station VOCM News that ignorance of the law was no excuse for selling fish without the proper licence.
According to the Department of Fisheries website it is legal to fish for smelt recreationally, but fish caught recreationally can only be given away, not sold.
A Facebook post outlining the situation, and the resulting charges against Harris, has been shared more than 19,000 times since it went online on Saturday.
“I fished lobster, cod, etc. from the time I was old enough to get in a punt, and it is so shocking to see the loss of cultural freedoms,” wrote David Boyd, who put up the Facebook post. “Compare the crime of a young boy selling a few smelt, caught by a single hook, to the devastation of resources by the big commercial fisheries.”
As for Harris, he’s not sure of the consequence of the charges the DFO placed against him, but he knows that for some fish species they can be quite serious, involving large fines and restrictions on future fishing. He said he’s had no contact with the DFO directly since Thursday.
But Harris said he received a call from Scott Simms, a Newfoundland and Labrador MP and chair of the Commons fisheries and oceans committee, and expects a visit from him at his home Monday evening.
“I would just like to know why they were allowed to do what they done, to set up a kid over the Internet. All was required was a simple phone call or a simple walk to the door and notify us that it’s illegal,” Harris said. “It would have been a done deal.”
UPDATE (Jan. 27): CBC News reported Friday that Harris has two prior convictions for salmon poaching and obstructing a fisheries official stemming from a July 2005 incident. He was convicted and fined $200 for failing to attach a valid tag to salmon and another $150 for obstruction, CBC reported.
Harris did not immediately responded to a request for comment from Yahoo Canada News. As of Friday an investigation by the DFO into the current situation is ongoing and no charges have been laid, CBC reported.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated MP Scott Simms’ role in Parliament.