Chris Samson and Kian Zhao spend many of their days holding their breath and scouring the ocean floor. Harvesting crab has long been a hobby of theirs, but they say the crustaceans have been harder to come by lately along the B.C. coast.
On Monday, they saw first-hand what has been threatening local crab populations.
The pair was free diving with a small group near Jericho Beach in Vancouver when they came across a mysterious line in the water.
"Towards the end of the dive, I decided to pull on it to see where it led me, and it led me to one trap, which led me to another trap, and so on," said Samson. "I knew immediately what I was looking at."
The traps didn't have the legally required identifiers or locator floats. Right away, Samson reported the finding to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
Over the next few days, fisheries officers dragged the sea floor and seized more than 250 illegal crab traps.
"That's a lot," said Arthur Demsky, a DFO detachment commander. "The gear is all illegal. It's not marked. There's no floats attached."
WATCH | Chris Samson uncovers illegal traps
Illegal crab fishing is a widespread problem along the B.C. coastline, where poachers set long lines of unmarked traps, often retrieving them at night using GPS coordinates. The crabs are then sold on the black market, or laundered into the commercial marketplace.
As many as 30 traps were attached to one of the lines crews recovered in English Bay.
Demsky says the traps appeared to be commercial grade, and did not include rot chord — a legally required cable that will degrade over time, allowing crabs to escape should a trap become lost.
"It's not only crabs that go into these traps, it's all sorts of fish that go into these traps," said Demsky. "I'm sure they get killed, and are captured and sold with the crab."
"Over the long term, that can be devastating to [the ecosystem]," he said.
Poachers pose a major conservation concern by taking undersized crab, or females that haven't had a chance to reproduce.
An investigation is ongoing, but officials admit it can be a challenge to find the perpetrators.
Full extent of issue unknown
Earlier this year, DFO pulled 337 illegal crab traps from Boundary Bay in a five-day operation with the Canadian Coast Guard.
The annual blitz has yielded more than 1,000 illegal traps over the past few years, but the full extent of the issue along the coast is unknown.
For hobby harvesters like Samson, uncovering an illegal trap is infuriating.
"Anger, disgust, frustration — we're out in the ocean all the time looking for crab and we can't find legally sized ones, and it's no wonder because these illegal operations are poaching them all," he said.
The finding was a first for Samson, who dives regularly across the region. He says he's thankful crews were able to uncover such a large network of traps.
"It hurts the commercial guys doing it legally, it hurts us who go out into the ocean trying to bring some food home. These people are hurting our economy and destroying our ocean," he said.
As for poachers, he has some words of warning.
"There's people out there like me, watching."
Poachers can face jail time and fines up to $100,000. Anyone who witnesses the illegal activity or has any information is asked to contact the DFO's Observe, Record, Report line.