From issuing fishing licenses for a threatened species and seeking to deal with poaching by banning legal fishers, to unresolved claims of indigenous rights and partial reporting by legacy media & even alleged foreign criminals – this is a trademark Canadian mess.

EXPANDING VOCABULARY

Truth be told, until early March, I did not know what the word ‘elver’ meant. I learned its meaning on X (yes, that much-derided platform can be great for education – if you are so inclined). An elver is a juvenile eel, barely a few inches long. The elvers that are the subject of the current – if barely noticed outside very specific circles – controversy are born a vast distance away from Canada, in the Sargasso sea. Sometimes they are also called ‘glass eels’, due to their translucent appearance. The European and Asian eels are endangered due to overfishing, which has led to the industry moving to the Atlantic coast of the US and Canada, plus parts of the Caribbean. The industry is relatively new in Canada – about three decades old. Elvers fetch a high price. You may have seen the figure of $5,000 per KG being mentioned everywhere, but I am told that was an all-time high. The price is more likely to range around C$2,500, give or take. Nonetheless, the business is definitely lucrative.

Elver fishing has a very narrow window, after they arrive on the coast of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the spring. They gather in brackish waters where they are caught as the elvers prepare for their journey upstream to mature into adult eels.

It was therefore a bit puzzling to learn, in the second week of March, that the federal government was going to ban all fishing of elvers. I reached out to one Zachary Townsend, who is himself a part-owner of one license for elver fishing. Zachary provided me with a lot of background information, and later, I received more information (about the other angles of this issue) from another friend who is a superb researcher, as well as others. In the meantime, the algorithm at our friendly social media platform X started populating my feed with news items pertaining to this issue.

DUCKS IN A ROW

As I absorbed all these inputs, it struck me that this is a trademark Canadian mess. Its components are as follows:

  • Under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), American Eel Anguilla rostrata has been put on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2020 and listed as Endangered.
  • Fishing elvers is permissible in the US. For example, see this link of the government of Maine. The link gives a very good outline of the lifecycle of the species. It also mentions that if the state’s quota of elver fishing is reached, then the fishery is closed for the rest of the season.
  • However, just as it is elsewhere, poaching is a challenge in the US; see this link of the US Justice Department about the conviction of one William Sheldon on charges of trafficking elvers.
  • While the elver fishery in Nova Scotia was shut down in April 2023 for 45 days “because of violence and rampant overfishing by unauthorized harvesters” (see this CBC link), the season appeared to have gone well in Maine (see this report in SeafoodSource).
  • This is not to say that this industry is problem-free in the US; in the case of William Sheldon cited above, Operation Broken Glass was able to get 18 of the 21 fishermen involved in the illegal fishing of elvers to plead guilty to poaching in South Carolina, Virginia and Maine (see this link of SeafoodSource).
  • My impression from the above is that the US has done a better job of enforcing their regulations in regard to elver fishing, thus balancing environmental concerns with the economic well-being of the communities depending on this industry.
  • It is noteworthy that in the US, four ‘tribal groups’ are involved in this industry – Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot (see the first link of SeafoodSource). This is worthy of note because it means that the issue of indigenous rights is common to both the countries’ industry, but Canada seems not have come to grips with it, unlike the US (more on this later).

PLUNGE

On March 11, I saw a post on X that quoted another post, talking about ‘elver fishery’. I communicated with the original poster, the aforesaid Zachary Townsend, to enquire as to what the issue was about. I learned from him that:

  • Nova Scotia’s minister of fisheries and aquaculture, Kent Smith, had written a letter on February 15, 2024 to the federal minister of fisheries and oceans, Diane Lebouthillier, expressing his ‘extreme disappointment’ of the latter’s announcement of the intention  not to open the (elver) fishery for the 2024 season. According to the provincial minister, the fishery generates $46 million in revenues (copy of the letter at the end of article).
  • Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery (CCSEF, see this link for their website), in a statement, alleges that “Chinese-owned companies sending briefcases full of cash to pay for (acts of intimidation against licensed elver fishers)”. Please see the image at the end of this article.
  • CCSEF also wrote to minister Lebouthillier, offering suggestions such as a fixed opening and closing date for the season and implementing a pilot traceability system (see image at the end of this article).
  • Mi’kmaw chiefs had given a proposal to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO); their proposed measures would include monitoring total allowable catches, enhancing traceability using GPS etc. (see this link of the CBC report).
  • The six chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick had issued a statement, saying that “the existing system prioritizes non-Indigenous commercial fishing interests at the expense of inherent fishing rights of First Nations” and advocating for enhanced monitoring of the species (see this link of NB Media Co-op).
  • Zachary said that minister Lebouthillier did not meet with the fishery representatives before making her decision, and even ignored the pleas of the Atlantic caucus of Liberal MP’s.
  • Zachary has posted the video of his presentation on the matter to the parliamentary committee meeting at this link on X.
  • Zachary started a petition on change.org, to open the elver fishery for the 2024 (see this link); so far, it has accumulated 2,322 signatures.

Acknowledging that I am seeing this from a distance, and without the benefit of inputs from the other side (i.e., the federal government), it appears to me that this issue has the standard set of components that one sees in a mess involving governments (plural) in Canada: a decision made without consultation with the stakeholders or taken while ignoring their submissions, a communication breakdown between the federal and provincial governments, penalizing law-abiding Canadians in an attempt to deal with illegal activity (those familiar with the gun control issue will see this readily) and friction between indigenous and non-indigenous populations over access to a highly valuable natural resource. For good measure, there is also the alleged involvement of foreign entities financing the violation of Canadian laws. The only other component missing from the mix was partial reporting by the media. Sadly, I didn’t have to wait for long before it showed up, too.

GAPS

On April 2, Global News aired a report (starts at the 13:51 mark of this clip) about two Mi’kmaw men who had been apprehended by DFO staff while fishing elvers. According to the report, the DFO staff had left them late at night at a gas station, without their shoes, cellphones or a way to get home. The report says, “They had been apprehended fishing for baby eels, a fishery that has been closed this season.” Later in the report, viewers are informed that the fishery was shut down ‘by Ottawa’ but the report does not touch upon the reason why. I think this context is important: if viewers know that the fishery is closed due to concerns regarding poaching, that too of a species that is listed as endangered, then their understanding of the report may change in a material way.

The report then goes on the say that according to the men who were apprehended, “they were exercising their treaty right to fish”. In an ideal world – or even in a world where a media outlet would want to provide a clear picture to its audience – there would have been some comment as to the conflict between Canadian laws and indigenous rights, seeing as this conflict plays out from time to time in other contexts, such as energy projects and the infamous confrontation at Caledonia in Ontario. Specifically, there would have been some delving into the terms of the particular treaty governing Canada’s relations with the First Nations in this area and what these terms say about fishing rights. Hopefully, there would have been a reference or two to similar instances in the past, and how they were resolved (or left unresolved).

As chance would have it, I received a different version of this event from someone on the ground there (to clarify, it was not Zachary, but someone else who reached out to me independently). According to this version, the circumstances are described as follows:

These two men were not alone – they had other associates. When DFO staff approached, these associates took off in the vehicle that they had used to come to the site. The two men’s shoes were in this vehicle. The apprehended men had been wearing waders (waterproof boots extending from the foot to the thigh) which were impounded / confiscated by DFO staff as they constitute fishing gear, and this was an unauthorized fishing operation. The two men were given the option to go to jail for the night or get dropped off in a safe area with a phone.

Is this version closer to the truth? Verifying it would require someone to be on the ground there, and I am in Brampton, ON, lacking the resources to do what it takes to get a clear(er) picture. But Global News does have the resources – and yet chose to present an incomplete story. They did not ask – or reveal to their audience – whether the two men had been alone at the time of their arrest, and about the rest of the circumstances leading to their arrest. At the risk of overstating the case, even steamed rice would have more ingredients than this story did.

VOID

The above is not to cast a blanket accusation on all media. From time to time, reports do emerge on this issue. The problem is that each report deals – exclusively or mainly – with the one item at hand. This lacuna is general, not limited to the issue of elvers: a multi-component issue requires lengthy treatment. Unfortunately, we live in an era of short attention spans, so it is understandable that the media sticks to ‘bite-sized’ pieces because they don’t want to lose the audience’s attention. What Alvin Toffler termed as ‘durational expectancy’ is at a very low level in today’s audiences – or is it?

I believe that today’s audiences DO have the time and the patience for long-form reporting – provided the issue is something that they care about. For example, my video chat with Clyde Do Something on the issue of international students (see this link) gained over 180,000 views and over 1,700 comments from viewers, despite being over 96 minutes long. The issue is complex, and it could only be broken down one component at a time.

In that light, what would do justice to the issue of elver fishery is a documentary that presents all the multiple sides of the issue to the audience (as I have attempted to do here in this article – hopefully to some effect).

OVERLAP

One such aspect of the elver fishing mess was reported a few days ago by Pentincton Herald (see this link). The report is about a ruling by New Brunswick’s court of appeals that in a case of alleged poaching dating back to 2023, the appellant had a right to access from the registrar of motor vehicles the names of 115 vehicle owners who were allegedly poaching elvers in an area where the appellant claims to have an exclusive right for elver fishing. The report notes that the alleged poaching occurred ‘after Ottawa had closed the fishery’. This brings us back to the conflict between Canadian law and indigenous rights. For its part, the Wolastoqey Nation (mentioned earlier in the article) “has rejected her claim outright”, but we aren’t informed what rebuttal(s) is/are. I am told by someone reliable (again, it is not Zachary) that the appellant, one Mary Ann Holland, is herself First Nations – but I have no means to verify that independently. In the meantime, her opponents are distributing t-shirts with her name – and a derogatory message – on it:

CLIFF

This excellent article, published by Yale University in 2010, gives an overview of how the populations of eel collapsed around the world, including in Canada. Once, its range was all the way north to Lake Ontario. The decimation of the species in this part of the Canada was caused, at least in part, by something that we would normally consider ‘eco-friendly’, viz., hydroelectric dams.

The solution – as I see it, anyway – does not lie in getting rid of hydroelectric dams or shutting down the fishery. The challenge, as always, is to find a balance between the competing concerns. Eel needs to thrive, and so do the fishers. But that can happen only if, and when, the people whose concerns are competing sit down at the table and put their heads together. From what I have seen so far, that dialogue is not happening – between the federal and provincial governments, or with the fishers and the ministry, or with the indigenous people claiming a treaty rights to fish contrary to the ministry’s directives.

My sense about this situation is that this is not (sadly) even because of a desire to derive political mileage from a problem, which would be bad enough. I think this mess exists because we lack the energy to get around to attending to its root causes – and that makes it a trademark Canadian mess.

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Image Credit: Queensland State Archives, via flickr.com; the image is at this link.

Images cited in the article: