The federal government has served notice it intends to close the commercial fishery for baby eels, or elvers, in the Maritimes this year — six weeks before the season is set to open.
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Diane Lebouthillier informed licence holders Tuesday and gave them until Feb. 23 to respond.
The tiny translucent eels are trapped in the spring in Maritime rivers and shipped live to Asia where they are grown for food. They are a lucrative catch that can sell for up to $5,000 a kilogram.
In a Feb. 13 letter obtained by CBC News, Lebouthillier referred to the violence, threats and widespread unauthorized harvesting that has characterized the fishery in recent years.
Lebouthillier said there was not enough time for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to implement enhanced "access for Indigenous communities, a new regulatory framework to regulate and licence the possession and export of elvers, and a suite of operational changes to the management of the elver fishery."
"Based on all the above, it is my view that it is not possible to have a safe and sustainable elver fishery in 2024, and therefore the fishery should not be opened," Lebouthillier wrote.
Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Diane Lebouthillier gave licence holders until Feb. 23 to respond to the notice to close the 2024 elver fishery. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
In a statement, Genna Carey of the Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery (CCSEF) responded on behalf of several of the eight commercial licence holders.
"Preventing legal fishers from doing their jobs will have almost no effect on poachers or Chinese buyers. They will still be there illegally harvesting elvers. In some ways their jobs will be easier without legal fishers watching what they're doing," said Carey.
"CCSEF has been begging DFO for more than two years to take serious steps to address the issues in the fishery. We participated in their sham review and even offered to pay for a traceability system, all to end up losing our livelihoods for our trouble."
In Ottawa, the planned closure dominated an emergency debate at a meeting of the Fisheries and Oceans committee with Conservatives scoffing at DFO's admission it cannot safely manage the fishery this year.
"This is a disgrace. How could you possibly let this happen?" said Newfoundland MP and fisheries critic Clifford Small.
"How does taking legal harvesters off the river help stop the poaching," demanded Nova Scotia Conservative MP Rick Perkins.
Deputy minister Annette Gibbons said it will prevent mixing or laundering of illegal with legal catch.
"This year all of the harvest will be illegal. We will be out in full force," Gibbons told MPs.
Follows a year of chaos
Last year, hundreds of unauthorized fishers flooded to rivers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick eager to cash in. Many were Indigenous harvesters claiming they were exercising their treaty rights to fish and did not require government approval.
Then-minister Joyce Murray shut down the commercial fishery — which includes authorized Indigenous harvesters — two weeks into the season.
But widespread poaching continued, angering commercial licence holders who were shut out of the fishery, but observed continued unlicensed fishing. They said federal enforcement was grossly inadequate, allowing chaotic nighttime scenes of harvesters threatening violence against enforcement officers, which Lebouthillier acknowledged in Tuesday's letter.
On Tuesday, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs reacted angrily to DFO's intentions. In a statement, the assembly said eight First Nations in Nova Scotia submitted a proposal to the fisheries minister in December outlining what they wanted in the upcoming season.
The proposal from Annapolis Valley, Bear River, Eskasoni, Glooscap, Pictou Landing, Potlotek, Wasoqopa'q (formerly Acadia) and We'koqma'q indicated expected participation levels, required quota and river designations.
"Clearly, DFO had no intentions of working in good faith with the Mi'kmaq on the elver fishery," Chief Gerald Toney, fisheries co-lead for the assembly, said in a statement released to CBC News.
"We provided them with a proposal that reflects our inherent rights as Mi'kmaq and included actions for promoting responsible resource management."
After the shutdown in 2023, DFO embarked on a review of the commercial elver fishery.
It had announced it would implement a new licence system for the 2024 season that would require an export and possession licence for elvers to increase traceability.
"Despite the department's best efforts, these changes will not be in place to support a 2024 fishery," Lebouthlillier wrote.
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