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Amid chaos of unlicensed baby eel harvest on East Coast, fisheries science suffers

People take part in a science project to watch baby eels on the East River in Nova Scotia in a handout photo. The science project has been cancelled due to unlicenced fishers working on the river during a federal shutdown on the fishery, which occurred due to conservation concerns and incidents of violence on the rivers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Atlantic Elver Fishery Ltd. People take part in a science project to watch baby eels on the East River in Nova Scotia in a handout photo. The science project has been cancelled due to unlicenced fishers working on the river during a federal shutdown on the fishery, which occurred due to conservation concerns and incidents of violence on the rivers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Atlantic Elver Fishery Ltd.
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HALIFAX -

Indigenous and non-Indigenous baby eel harvesters are lamenting that a long-running study on the species has been cancelled because of unlicensed, chaotic fishing.

Harvester Stanley King said illegal fishing for baby eels in Nova Scotia has prevented the annual study on the East River by commercial harvesters, the federal Fisheries Department and a non-profit group.

"When poachers descend on the river, they remove these eels before they can reach our study area, so we get flawed data and it would make the stock look much lower than it really is," he said in an interview on Wednesday.

"This is the great flaw of (the Fisheries Department) letting poachers act with impunity."

The federal government closed the fishery for baby eels in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for 45 days on April 15 after reports of poaching and of violence among fishers, but fishing continues. Baby eels -- known as elvers -- are worth more than $4,000 per kilogram; they are fished at night and flown live to Asia where they are grown for food.

Meanwhile, the Wolastoqey Nation -- which also holds licences to fish the eels -- says it regrets that data about the health of the baby eel population in Nova Scotia is not being recorded this season. Chief Allan Polchies Jr. of Sitansisk First Nation said he is also disappointed that the federal government hasn't provided support for a study on the health of the stocks in southwestern New Brunswick.

"The lack of data being gathered to inform decisions about this fishery in Nova Scotia is problematic, but the situation is worse in Wolastoqey Territory where there is no index study at all," he said in an email.

The Wolastoqey Nation, he said, has asked repeatedly for support to establish a study that would inform decisions about the health of the fishery in its territory. It has advocated for a First Nation-led fishery with the potential participation of non-Indigenous commercial fishers pending conservation studies.

King said the study on the Nova Scotia test river began in 1996, with the objective of measuring the amount of elvers moving through the waters. The eels are caught, measured and counted before they are released to travel up the river to spawn. The study area is located about 70 kilometres southwest of Halifax.

He said the study supplies data to the federal Fisheries Department to help it estimate population abundance and compare yearly harvesting levels over time.

King has argued for weeks that Ottawa needs to significantly increase its enforcement of the moratorium so that unlicensed fishing ceases on the East River and other rivers across the province. Each day, he posts fresh pictures taken at night by hidden cameras showing fishing being carried out on the rivers.

Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray told reporters in Ottawa on Monday that the elver fishery "got out of hand" due to the value of the catch and the relative ease of acquiring the gear and entering the fishery. She said, however, that claims the government wasn't enforcing the moratorium were untrue, adding that fisheries officers were working with the RCMP, "making arrests and confiscating product."

In 2012, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated the American eel as a threatened species after listing it as a species of special concern in 2006.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2023.

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