Officers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) were busy collecting illegal and ghost fishing gear last week, seizing 270 crab traps suspected to have been illegally set in Boundary Bay.
They returned a large number of fish and crab to the ocean from the seized traps, including 788 Dungeness crab and 119 red rock crab.
A multi-jurisdictional effort, DFO officers from the Langley, Steveston, Chilliwack and whale detachments worked with their Canadian Coast Guard colleagues from Sea Island Base to conduct the enforcement operation, using the Coast Guard’s hovercraft to help for the third year in a row.
The majority of the gear seized is illegal, noted DFO detachment commander Art Demsky.
“The majority of it is ground line trap gear – it’s set along the ocean floor, with a various number of traps along a length of line,” he explained.
If someone is legally fishing that way, DFO regulations state it’s supposed to be marked on either end with a rope that goes to the surface and a float.
“None of these have floats.”
All the gear is sunken, or hidden, so the DFO must use a special side-scanning sonar that looks for signs on the ocean floor.
They then use “essentially, what is a grappling hook” to bring gear to the surface.
Fishery officers conduct dragging operations several times a year to counter suspected illegal fishing, Demsky noted, to retrieve lost, abandoned or illegally set gear that are out of compliance, also known as ghost fishing.
In Boundary Bay, many of the traps had fresh bait in them.
In other instances, illegal fishers only bait the trap once, using zap straps or other ways to wire the escape mechanism shut, so certain fish or crabs that get into the traps, can’t get out.
“The fish and crab that go in there and die – they become bait themselves, and they keep on fishing – that’s called ghost fishing,” Demsky said.
“It’s a very, very despicable act… it’s very detrimental. If they get lost, those things will fish for many, many years. They’re made out of stainless steel.”
While nearly 1,000 crabs were found alive and released, there were unfortunately, many that were found dead, he noted.
Officers averaged about 60 traps a day during the five-day operation (Jan. 23-27) and collected traps from 27 strings of illegal or abandoned fishing gear.
Using the hovercraft really helps, Demsky said, as it offers a bigger, stronger platform for the crane and winch, and can also operate in the shallow waters of Boundary Bay.
Fishery officers will now attempt to identify the seized traps and gear and investigate to try to identify the perpetrators.
Of the traps seized, 154 of the total 270 traps were sealed shut (58 per cent).
People can face a fine of up to $500,000 for a first offence of illegal fishing (deploying an illegal trap).
If someone is caught in the act, the DFO can seize their vessel.
“It can be a high price to pay,” Demsky acknowledged, but, “People are obviously selling the crab.”
“The crab market is very lucrative… we have no idea how many traps are out there – we can’t see them, but someone could quite easily harvest 600 to 800 or more pounds in a day or evening, or even a three- to four-hour period depending (on the time of year and day),” he said.
With only eight DFO officers to man the area from Vancouver to Mission, the DFO relies on the public to help them catch illegal fishers and to be their eyes and ears when they’re not around, Demsky said.
“Those calls help. It’s important for people to contact us and let us know (anything suspicious). If we can’t respond, we certainly make a note – it helps us try to pinpoint patterns,” he said.
“If people are calling in we need as much information as possible – the time, the date – what they see and what they hear are often important.”
To report suspected illegal fishing or sales of illegal harvest, anyone with information can call the toll-free violation reporting line at 1-800-465-4336 or visit the DFO site.