New Brunswick's fisheries minister demands immediate crackdown on baby eel poaching

·3 min read

HALIFAX — Growing tensions over enforcement of the baby eel fishery closure in the Maritimes have prompted a call from New Brunswick’s fisheries minister for immediate federal action to stop alleged illegal fishing.

“Please intervene in this matter and impress upon your department the importance and urgency of acting within hours, not days to address this matter,” Margaret Johnson wrote in a letter Friday to her federal counterpart, Joyce Murray.

The New Brunswick minister called closing the fishery without providing the resources to ensure compliance “a recipe for disaster.”

“It risks the imminent devastation of this resource, increases tension and materially increases the risk of violence in fishing communities,” Johnson wrote.

Her letter came after some commercial fishers and the provincial Progressive Conservative member of the legislature Andrea Anderson-Mason voiced criticisms over increased poaching of the tiny translucent eels known as elvers.

A former justice minister, Anderson-Mason said in an interview Thursday that she was told by the federal Fisheries Department that there weren’t enough staff in her area of southwestern New Brunswick to respond. She said tensions have risen as poachers have moved in to make quick money.

The federal Fisheries Department closed the lucrative fishery on April 15 for 45 days in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for conservation reasons and because of concerns over violence related to illegal fishing. Since then, some commercial harvesters have complained that little has been done to stop fishing of the eels, which are worth more than $4,000 per kilogram.

Fished at night in tidal rivers each spring as they migrate inland from the ocean, the elvers are flown live to Asia where they are grown for food.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia's power utility said it was forced to shut down a small hydroelectric dam last month because of the presence of alleged elver poachers.

In an emailed statement Friday, utility spokesperson Jackie Foster said the generating station in Head of St. Margarets Bay, N.S., about 33 kilometres southwest of Halifax, was shut down for safety reasons for most of April.

“Due to the proximity of this (fishing) activity to our generating station on the St. Margarets Bay hydro system, as well as safety concerns, we shut down generation at this site last month for about three weeks,” Foster said.

The utility did not provide specific details around safety concerns, but Foster said generation has resumed on a smaller scale. She said the utility has posted additional signage and added security at the dam site.

Stanley King, owner of Atlantic Elver Fishery Ltd., has a commercial licence to fish on the Northeast River, near the hydroelectric dam.

King said his company gave up fishing at the location after the first night this season because of the number of people who had shown up to fish without a licence. Indigenous fishers have said they don't need a licence because they have a treaty right to fish for elvers.

He said his company has fished the river for more than 20 years. “We fished every night of the season in a typical year,” he said in an interview. “This year there were 50 plus (fishers) … we stayed for a few hours and then left and never went back.”

King said the frenetic elver fishing has decreased, but he said he is disappointed by what he described as lax enforcement by the federal Fisheries Department.

On Wednesday, the office of federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray defended her department’s actions. The office said that since April 15, fisheries officers had made 18 arrests and seized 6.5 kilograms of elvers along with one vehicle, 15 dip nets and 22 fish traps — known as fyke nets — in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Those statistics "are shockingly low," King said. "They can be attributed to one officer going to one river on one night for one hour and they would get the same amount of seizures.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2023.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press