Something fishy: there are still lots of ways for fishermen to get rich, most of them illegal

Illegal fishing has become a way of doing business in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Despite prohibitions, fishermen continue to overfish, fish out of season, fish out of bounds, catch undersized fish and use untagged lobster traps. The industry has to make a decision whether to fish responsibly or spoil its source of business.


It’s a little past 7 a.m. on a highway outside Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Gordie Gore and Brian Emin are in the middle of a cat-and-mouse game played for millions of dollars. The penalties for those caught cheating are stiff, and violence is always a possibility:. some culprits carry semi-automatic weapons. The elusive prey of these federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officers is fishermen working illegally- using untagged lobster traps, catching undersized fish, or simply fishing out of season or out of bounds. We move in a circuitous route between wharves and beaches, stopping occasionally on grassy hilltops or gravel roads to survey the lowlands from a discreet perch. There is little cause for excitement. Then an anonymous tip gets passed along from DFO headquarters: “Check out the place where you were the other day. You know, the spot near the old house.” While Emin explains that directions are intentionally vague because the radio frequency is closely monitored, Gore hits the gas pedal.

On this road to nowhere, speed matters. And so after only a few kilometres, when Gore suddenly gears down, jerks the Chevy 4×4 to the shoulder of the road, and jumps out, I should be expecting it. I am not. A fifty-five-year-old billy goat of a man, Gore leaps from the truck and scurries under a barbed-wire fence. I gracelessly follow suit. Through the thick underbrush and over a small hill we find a few large pools of water that drain into the sea. Apart from the yellow morning sun that skips like a smooth stone across the Atlantic Ocean, there’s nothing but a few plastic buckets and a couple of old wooden chairs – all empty. We had expected to find fishermen dipping nets illegally into the shallow water for fish to sell as bait. We are either too late or overeager. Either way, the mice are winning.

fisherman-fishing-reel-river-39854

After a few more stops, and one or two more obstacle runs, my tour of duty ends. I’ve spent the day chasing shadows and the only thing I’ve caught was my jacket on a rusty fence. Gore and Emin seem unfazed; they catch their fair share of rogues in rubber boots and are happy to have avoided conflict for another day. In a business where there are miles of rocky coastline to be patrolled and only a handful of DFO officers to make the rounds, I am left wondering why anyone would don an ugly green DFO uniform in return for $40,000 a year and a course in self-defence. Emin admits the rewards are few. “We don’t even get the same respect policemen get. You get the rats out poaching and when you catch somebody you’re in a fight.”

Miraculously, no DFO officer has ever died on the job, though there have been close calls. Like the time a fish cop slipped from the deck of a vessel he was inspecting. Unable to swim and hanging by his fingertips, he had his hands stomped on by the fisherman until he plunged into the water. He managed to dog-paddle his way to the safety of a nearby dock. Says Leo Muise, the DFO’s chief of regulations and licencing for the Maritimes Region, Scotia-Fundy sector, “I’ve been told that I’d be going fishing and I wouldn’t come back.” The enforcement game has become so volatile, in fact, that when an East Coast fisherman was identified as the snitch who loaned his boat to the DFO for a sting operation, he received death threats. “He was lucky he didn’t get death,” Muise says. Even I am warned that “asking about illegal fishing in Nova Scotia is like going into an Italian restaurant and asking about the Mafia.” That nickel’s worth of wisdom from a reluctant interviewee is followed by a sarcastic “Good luck” and the sound of a phone line gone dead.

Whether it’s for salmon in British Columbia, crab in New Brunswick, or lobster in Nova Scotia, overfishing occurs with tide-like frequency. A list of 1995 sanctions applied to Scotia-Fundy fishermen reveals that there were 234 violators caught in the region, fifty-four of them for “licence sanctions for conservation-related offences.” (Half of these were related to lobster fishing.) “There’s a tremendous misreporting of landings for commercial fish [that] generally happens right across the board. If it was just one or two individuals, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” says Jerry Conway, former head of investigations and legal affairs for the DFO in Halifax.

In the late 1980s, when fines were low and sanctions were few, the then Nova Scotia fisheries minister, John Leefe, estimated the proportion of illegal fish on the market to be fifty per cent. These days, “twenty-five to thirty per cent at certain times of the year” is the conservative estimate of one seafarer. This means that in a province whose total landed value of fish was $470.9-million in 1995 (which translates into a market value of close to $1-billion) illegal groundfish fishing probably netted crooks $100-million last year, and more likely $200-million. These staggering numbers, coupled with the environmental threat posed by overfishing, make it a black market worth shutting down, though this is not a popular notion in a region with an age-old tradition of fishing your quota, plus a few extra pounds.

“Fishing is a way of life; illegal fishing is a way of doing business,” says Conway “There are more millionaires in southwest Nova Scotia in the fisheries than anywhere else east of Montreal.”

If there’s any place in Canada where fishermen are making millions, it’s the lobster fishery (a $195-million industry in Canada in 1995). It’s here, in “southwest Nova,” wedged between the rocks and a hard place to work – namely the Atlantic Ocean – that a six-month season and strict quotas contrast sharply with a seemingly endless supply of lobster. Traps are permitted to hold an unlimited number of lobster provided the carapace measures no less than eighty-four millimetres and they are routinely brought to the surface with a dozen or more crustaceans inside. One fisherman returned to the wharf after a single day’s work with a whopping 6,000 pounds of lobster. When this bounty fetches five dollars a pound dockside (at the time of my visit, seven dollars a pound was the going rate), the temptation to overfish is almost irresistible.

Those who fish lobster legally haul traps containing an average of 20,000 pounds a season, which translates into a gross income of approximately $100,000. Toss in the cost of a boat, equipment, bait, crew, and a licence though, some fishermen will tell you, and their incomes dip dangerously close to the poverty line. Certainly, those making big bucks are in the minority – income figures from Revenue Canada for the 1992 tax year indicate that of Nova Scotia’s 28,340 fishermen, 1,770 reported earnings of between $50,000 and $100,000, while 180 made more than $100,000. Still, those who do cheat get very rich, very fast.

Randy Baker, of Head Jeddore on Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, knows about catching groundfish illegally by the boatload. “I used to do it,” admits the thirty-seven-year-old with the shiny pate and anchor-deep voice, “but not to the same degree that some guys did.” A staggering claim, given that the former president of the Eastern Fishermen’s Federation would, in his own words, “land anywhere between 500 and 5,000 pounds” of illegal ground-fish in a single trip. Baker came ashore for good in 1995 after he sold his commercial licence back to the government for six figures as part of its Harvesting Adjustment Board’s conservation programme. Retirement came after years spent dropping unmarked nets and hauling up contraband that would be unloaded under cover of night. Often darkness wasn’t even required; dodging the law was sometimes as simple as submitting reports that listed fish of one species as something else. “If we caught more haddock than we were supposed to, we’d just call it hake or halibut,” Baker says.

This cloak-and-dagger approach to the world’s second-oldest profession is helped along by modern boats, which are not only bigger and sturdier than older vessels, but deeper and wider. This added capacity allows a greater catch to be stored on board and subsequently results in longer, more lucrative trips to sea. It’s no crime to build boats that, to the untrained eye, seem almost as wide as they are long. The trouble begins when these faster, sturdier craft are used to facilitate criminal behaviour. Underhanded underwater dealings include dragging nets with parachutes attached (which create enough tension to reduce the size of the holes in a net and allow smaller and younger fish to be caught), or using high-tech navigational equipment to locate green 7-Up bottles that act as low-profile buoys for illegal nets and traps not tagged with requisite government-issue plastic ID numbers.

Curtis Rodgerson stands on the deck of his new $300,000 “lobster trap,” the Nicholas & Alec (named after his young sons). Although there are only six weeks left in the season, the thirty-two-year-old with the baby face and lineman’s body is dock-side this morning. The water is choppy and he has landed enough lobster this season to afford a break. Rodgerson, who is by all accounts an honest fisherman, takes this opportunity to explain that fishermen who work out of Sandford, Nova Scotia, don’t fish illegally: “We’re a pretty religious community;” he explains, while conducting a tour of his forty-four foot, eleven-inch boat.

Once inside the wheelhouse, it becomes clear that while God keeps Rodgerson on the straight and narrow, technology keeps him on the lobster. The punch of a few buttons on his “video plotter” brings up a detailed map of the Nova Scotia coastline; by inserting a disc in the floppy drive he can chart his way anywhere in the world. He activates another screen that is quickly split by a series of black lines and dotted with images of tiny fish. Even at a glance, a landlubber can see the contours of the ocean floor, various schools of fish, and the depth at which they can be found. “Fishing has changed,” admits Rodgerson. “Technology has expanded the limit to which we can go from fifteen to fifty miles. The lobster can’t escape us any more.”

Sam Elsworth, owner of Sambro Fisheries Ltd., agrees. “Efficiency has increased tremendously,” he says, shifting excitedly about the wheelhouse of one of the half-dozen boats tied up near his plant, a few kilometres southwest of Halifax. “It’s like some sort of spaceship in here.” Elsworth obviously hasn’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation lately, but the array of screens, radios, and cellular technology is impressive.

Perhaps the biggest boost to illegal fishing came with the Global Positioning System (GPS). The high-tech successor to the sextant, a GPS allows a captain to pinpoint where his boat is any time, anywhere. For fishermen with motives other than staying on course, a GPS allows traps and nets to be hidden beyond prescribed boundaries, then retrieved with relative ease. “It’s not a guessing game for the fishermen,” says DFO’s Gore. “They have electronic equipment that lets them go back to within thirty feet of where they left their traps the day before.”

Government cutbacks mean that the hands of DFO officers such as Gore and Emin are tied to woefully outdated equipment when it comes to policing computer-aided swashbucklers. The 1995 amalgamation of the DFO with the Canadian Coast Guard upped the number of police vehicles on the water, but the fact is that most of these patrol vessels are old and have a maximum speed of a paltry ten knots. Short of catching a crook at dock-side, DFO officers are often reduced to dragging grapple hooks through the water in the hope of snagging a rope, string, or nylon fishing line that shouldn’t be there. It’s little wonder that morale inside – and outside – the DFO is low.

To combat what lobstermen like Ashton Spinney, of Lower Argyle, Nova Scotia, call a “lack of confidence in DFO,” the federal government has proposed revisions to the Fisheries Act. Commercial-fishing violations, which have traditionally been handled through the criminal courts, are to be turned over to “Tribunals” (one each, located on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts). These tribunals will be armed with powers that include the forfeiture of fish, gear, and vessels used in the violation; quota reductions; or financial penalties of up to $15,000. Five-figure fines have become the most powerful weapons in the illegal-fishing war. In the past, a routine fine of a few thousand dollars amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist for those who made ten times that in landings. “A two-or three-thousand-dollar fine was considered the cost of doing business,” says Muise, “but take away a guy’s lobster licence for the first two weeks of the season and that really hurts. It could mean that he loses up to half his income for the year.”

The greatest deterrent to overfishing, however, came in July of 1992, when northern cod disappeared from the menu as the result of a government-imposed moratorium. The main cod killers may not have been inshore fishermen (those who work within fifty miles of shore) but offshore fishermen (those who work between fifty and 200 miles from land). Specifically, large fish-processing operations shamelessly deplete fish and lobster stocks through illegal and unethical practices such as “trans-shipping.” (Fish are transferred between vessels at sea in an effort to avoid exceeding any one ship’s total allowable catch of a given species.) This form of overfishing is so lucrative that some companies buy “fixed-gear” boats (those whose nets and lines are stationary and catch fewer fish, but have higher quotas) for the sole purpose of trans-shipping from their “mobile-gear” boats, which catch more, faster.

But the most heinous high-sea .crime is “high-grading,” which occurs after the nets of an offshore trawler have been dragged through the water. Captains of these vessels are sent out with strict orders to bring back only certain species. When the nets invariably surface with thousands of pounds of unwanted fish, captains face a dilemma: risk penalties from the DFO as well as their employers for landing the “wrong” species, or throw the fish back, dead. Usually they opt for the latter. Crew members wearing large rubber boots and wielding long, sharpened poles sift through each catch, tossing overboard all unwelcome species.

This shopping-list approach to fishing results in massive amounts of carnage, and the occasional conviction. In 1994, for instance, two National Sea Products captains were fined a total of $35,000 for dumping 22,000 kilograms of cod they caught while fishing for redfish in the Gulf of St Lawrence. (Canadian companies are not the only ones overfishing; Spanish, Russian, and other foreign fleets actively poach offshore as well.)

Privateering of this sort is made possible by a market both domestic and international for ill-gotten groundfish (cod, pollock, haddock, redfish, flatfish, and halibut), shellfish (scallop, crab, shrimp, and lobster), and pelagics (herring, mackerel, swordfish, and tunas). Swordfish in the U.S. and bluefin tuna in Japan have been particularly active black markets. Currently, shark fins, destined for Asian soups, are the hottest items. “I don’t want to use the word ‘Mafia,’ but there is an organized element [at work],” says Conway. Not surprising, given that a single tuna might weigh a thousand pounds and fetch upwards of $20,000. As one DFO officer told International Game Warden magazine: “One boat load of illegal tuna is worth as much as robbing a bank.” When a fisherman who doesn’t have a licence to catch tuna all of a sudden finds $15,000 or $20,000 on the end of his line, it’s often hard to believe that crime doesn’t pay.

Every day in countless communities around the province – and the country fishermen must decide whether to fish responsibly or ravage the resource. In southwest Nova Scotia, where lobster traps get stacked high along the shoulders of quiet country roads, it’s easy to forget the dangerous working conditions and the sorry state of the groundfishery that make such a decision doubly difficult. But then I remember Gordie Gore, with one eye on the road and the other scanning the horizon for poachers, saying, “If you take away the lobster you might as well throw a tarp over this place and sink it.”

Leave a Reply