CBC Investigates

Concern about poaching after 84% drop in charges by N.L. enforcement staff

Only 31 charges compared to 195 year before. "We're amazed at those numbers," says salmon conservation group.

Province says fewer salmon and catch-and-release policy meant fewer anglers on rivers

The fish and wildlife enforcement division is responsible for the enforcement of provincial and federal laws related to inland fish and wildlife resources. (CBC)

There was a sharp decline in fisheries-related charges laid by provincial enforcement officials in Newfoundland and Labrador's inland waters this past year, sparking concerns that an internal shifting of responsibilities within government could be hurting the battle against poachers.

'The impacts of this, if not addressed, are going to be fast, furious, and devastating.- John McCarthy, SPAWN

But the province is pointing the finger at Ottawa, saying federal policies are having a negative impact.

In the just-ending 2017-18 fiscal year, provincial officers laid 31 charges. (The number does not include January through March, which is not a traditionally active time of the year.)

That compares to 195 charges during the year before — a drop of more than 84 per cent.

"We're amazed at those numbers," said John McCarthy, president of SPAWN, the Salmon Preservation Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We're more amazed that the government is not amazed."

Enforcement responsibility shifted

McCarthy believes a key bureaucratic decision is responsible for the decline.

In February 2017, the province announced that its enforcement duties would move from the justice department to the fisheries and land resources portfolio.

McCarthy said that move hasn't worked out, and has resulted in "dysfunction." He believes the skill set required for inland fisheries enforcement duties is quasi-criminal, and should have stayed in justice.

"I believe the first step is for government to acknowledge that there is a problem," McCarthy said. 

"The impacts of this, if not addressed, are going to be fast, furious, and devastating, in our opinion."

John McCarthy is president of the Salmon Preservation Association for the Waters of Newfoundland (SPAWN). (Colleen Connors/CBC)

McCarthy is worried about the message sent by these numbers.

"These hard-core poachers, they're going to do it anyway," he said.

"But then all of a sudden a guy says, 'Well, this guy got away with it.' And it's a domino effect, and it'll be rampant. That's what our fear is."

Fisheries minister slams feds

But Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne says that fear is unfounded.

"There was a lot less fish in the rivers," Byrne told CBC News.

"And when you have less fish, you have a lot less activity. When you have a lot less activity, you have a lot less violations. It's kind of the old analogy — you don't put your hand in the cookie jar, when there's no cookies to grab."

Asked about the big drop in provincial charges, he repeatedly shifted the conversation to Ottawa and the federal role in managing the resource in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Byrne said the move to a hook-and-release-only program in early August last year resulted in a drastic drop in the number of anglers.

Newfoundland and Labrador Fisheries Minister Gerry Byrne says there was less activity on provincial rivers because anglers had to throw back their catch. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

"DFO designs this, the actual management structure, the management plan, the policy is (to) try to reduce the number of fishermen as much as possible off the river," he said.

"By removing the retention capacity, they know that retention-only fishers, or retention-interested fishers, are going to drop in numbers."

So fewer fishers chasing fewer fish meant fewer violations — by the province and DFO, which Byrne says laid only eight charges of its own.

Byrne said the province is going to the federal government to talk about a "co-management" system.

"DFO is not doing any work, in my opinion, on science, on salmon habitat enhancement, on management, on education or enforcement."

Province bolstered enforcement in 2004

While it is a federal responsibility, the province announced plans to bolster poaching enforcement back in 2004, in the early days of the Danny Williams administration.

At the time, Williams was critical of Ottawa for "abdicating" its salmon conservation responsibilities.

So the province reassigned conservation officers, in an effort to tackle the perceived problem.

The move won plaudits from salmon conservation groups.

But there has been a long-standing internal government debate about who should oversee the program.

The justice department used to monitor salmon rivers, but the responsibility passed to the department of fisheries and land resources. (Marilyn Boone/CBC)

A 2010 review — which former judge William Marshall took five years to complete — found that there was a past "nasty internal struggle" over those responsibilities, and suggested all wildlife enforcement should be transferred to justice. SPAWN obtained a copy of that 70-page review, which does not appear to have ever been publicly released.

In 2011, then-justice minister, Felix Collins, defended having inland poaching enforcement under the umbrella of his portfolio.

"Transferring the wildlife enforcement division out of the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Justice was a natural fit because it is an enforcement component and naturally fits under the Department of Justice," Collins told the legislature at the time.

"The Department of Justice is a tremendous resource for expertise, support, training and so on."

In February 2017, the Ball administration announced a realignment of government departments.

That included shifting the fish and wildlife enforcement division from the Department of Justice to the newly-formed Department of Fisheries and Land Resources.

With files from Colleen Connors