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Tonnes of elvers were poached in 2023, but border agents didn't find any

Baby eels, also called elvers, fetch high prices in Canada when they are sold to Asian markets to be grown for food. That led to rampant illegal poaching in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick earlier this year. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press - image credit)
Baby eels, also called elvers, fetch high prices in Canada when they are sold to Asian markets to be grown for food. That led to rampant illegal poaching in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick earlier this year. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press - image credit)

The Canada Border Services Agency says it looked, but did not find evidence of black-market shipments of baby eels or elvers out of Canada this year, despite widespread poaching in Maritime rivers.

The disclosure came from Daniel Anson, the agency's director of general intelligence and investigations, during a recent appearance before the standing Fisheries and Oceans Canada parliamentary committee examining illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

"We have not had any seizures of elver eels this specific year. We have effected a variety of different examinations to ensure compliance and have not found anything that was illicit or destined abroad that had been harvested illegally or the result of unreported fishing," Anson testified last week.

That was greeted with scorn by one Nova Scotia MP.

"It tells me they weren't doing their job," says Rick Perkins, whose South Shore-St. Margarets riding is home to many rivers that were overrun by poachers this spring.

Elvers are Canada's most valuable seafood species by weight, fetching up to $5,000 per kilogram.

MP Rick Perkins at the standing Fisheries and Oceans Canada parliamentary committee examining illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.
MP Rick Perkins at the standing Fisheries and Oceans Canada parliamentary committee examining illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023.

MP Rick Perkins at the standing Fisheries and Oceans Canada parliamentary committee examining illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on Monday. (House of Commons Canada)

The tiny, translucent elvers — sometimes called glass eels — are flown to Asia where they are grown for food.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) was forced to shut down the legal harvest this spring after Indigenous and non-Indigenous poachers flooded rivers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Some unauthorized Indigenous fishermen claimed they have a treaty right to catch elvers that does not require DFO approval.

The department believed unauthorized harvesting was equal to, if not greater than, the legal catch.

However the closure did not stop unauthorized harvesting. It continued during the spring migration of tiny eels from the ocean into rivers.

Neither Anson nor Cathy Toxopeus, the director general of commercial programs at the agency, were aware of the DFO shutdown nor how the fishery operates.

"There may have been CBSA regional resources that were aware," said Anson.

Daniel Anson the director of general intelligence and investigations for the Canada Border Services Agency.
Daniel Anson the director of general intelligence and investigations for the Canada Border Services Agency.

Daniel Anson is the director of general intelligence and investigations for the Canada Border Services Agency. (House of Commons Canada)

On Tuesday, Perkins challenged DFO deputy minister Annette Gibbons during her appearance at the committee,

"Last week the Canada Border Services Agency said that they didn't believe that any elvers left this country across the border. Do you agree with that?," he asked

"I think we think that elvers do leave in general. I think they're well best positioned to comment on that," Gibbons replied.

"But in their testimony, they didn't even know that the elver season is over now," said Perkins.

"So does DFO actually communicate with CBSA when there is poaching going on to tell them to secure the borders?"

"We do," she said.

DFO could be doing more, says commercial fisher

"So why haven't they?," Perkins said.

"I can't answer that for them, sir,' Gibbons said.

Stanley King, one of eight commercial elver license holders, says traditional examination methods like X-ray will not differentiate a package containing elvers from a package containing lobster.

He says illegally harvested elvers can simply be mislabeled as another seafood commodity and shipped.

"The fact that Canada Border Services has not managed to intercept a single shipment of the 4.5 metric tonnes DFO acknowledges was harvested illegally in 2023 — the actual number being much higher — suggests DFO has not done an adequate job educating CBS or passing along tips from the public," King said.

In May 2023, fisheries officers seized $500,000 worth of baby eels outside Halifax.

Review underway

In 2022, the fishery was worth $47 million, shared between eight commercial license holders and three Indigenous communal commercial license holders operating with DFO approval.

A 2017 investigation led to the raid of a warehouse near Pearson Airport in Toronto, where police seized about eight kilograms of what they said were elvers worth $170,000 harvested during a First Nation's food, social and ceremonial fishery. Such catches are prohibited from being sold.

Fisheries and Oceans is reviewing its management of the fishery.

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