A prospective elver fishery is being met with skepticism by Kingsclear First Nation's fisheries director because of the lower than expected quota proposed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
"We're disappointed with the amount of quota they suggested that we would fish, but definitely a significant decision on their part and I think possibly it's quite linked to the politics around everything," said Patrick Polchies.
Polchies added the proposed quota for the entire St. John River for all 6 communities of the Wolastoqey nation is 200 kilograms.
WATCH | Prospective elver fishery met with skepticism in First Nation
Interest has been growing in the expanding industry and over 40 people from surrounding First Nations communities attended an elver fishery training session held by Kingsclear last week.
Elvers — also known as glass eels — are young eels with a big price tag. With a boom in growth of the fishery in recent years, the eels can sell for as much as $5,000 a kilogram.
They are sold overseas to Asian markets, where they are then grown to adult size.
"Kingsclear will have access to about 17 kilograms or so, which isn't a very large amount and not really sufficient enough to make the fishery really worthwhile for the fishers themselves," said Polchies.
According to DFO, the current elver fishery occurs in southwest New Brunswick, the Upper Bay of Fundy, southwest Nova Scotia, along the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, and in portions of Cape Breton Island.
The fishery in the Maritimes region is limited entry, with nine licences total: eight commercial and one communal commercial, which are party based on a First Nation being identified as an eligible licence holder.
Each licence-holder can engage people to fish under their licence up to a maximum number, ranging from 12 to 28 ,depending on the licence. In 2021, a total of 168 participants were authorized to fish under the nine licences.
Each licence has an individual quota allocation and the total allowable catch, or TAC, for the fishery is 9,960 kilograms.
Polchies said talks have gone on for close to five years to get the department allow for an elver fishery.
"It isn't just the quota issue, we would like DFO to recognize our unceded territory and there are components of the fishery that we felt we should have access to in terms of a geographic area," said Polchies.
"We definitely would like to see more quota and a greater geographic area in order to do the fishery."
Polchies noted that increasing participation of First Nation fishers would be challenged by the smaller quota.
"We would like to have had 40 fishers based on the original estimate of quota, which was around 400 kilograms and we thought that we would at least get that."
Polchies said the quota should be based on a scientific evaluation of the elver population in the region.
"As we fish the elvers, we'll be asking people to document their fishing activities and other conditions occurring around them so that we have a better understanding of what the real number of our population is."
Discussions with DFO
In an emailed response to CBC News, DFO said it is in discussions with other First Nations that have either submitted commercial fishing plans for elver or have expressed interest in doing so.
"The commercial elver fishery is unique. It has seen exponential growth in value over the past decade and lower costs in gear or vessels to enter, compared to other fisheries." stated Lauren Sankey, communications advisor with the department.
"As an interim measure for the 2022 season, DFO is reducing the individual quota being issued to existing commercial elver licence holders (excluding We'koqma'q First Nation) to approximately 86% of what was allocated in 2021. The remaining quota will be used to support an increase in First Nations participation in the fishery, and therefore will not increase overall effort, while ensuring an orderly and sustainable fishery for all."
Sankey added that as discussions with interested First Nations are ongoing, no further detail will be provided at this time regarding a set quota.
"DFO has reached an interim understanding with Acadia, Annapolis Valley, and Bear River First Nations that sees a total allocation of 400 kg being used across the three communities to support designated harvesters from among their members fishing elver, and selling their catch during the 2022 season, without increasing overall fishing effort."
In 2021, the commercial elver fishery landed approximately 7,100 kilograms of the 9,960 kilograms of total allowable catch. The fishery had a landed value of approximately $27 million.