A massive, five-year federal crackdown on illegal halibut fishing in Nova Scotia wrapped up Tuesday in Bridgewater, with the last of 11 fishermen pleading guilty to misreporting catches to a Blandford fish processor.
"It was a significant problem in the area that we were able to deal with through the courts," said Federal Crown attorney Josh Bryson outside court.
Lunenburg County fisherman Bernie Selig was fined $5000 for not reporting 22,000 pounds of groundfish landed at the Deep Cove Aqua plant in 2007 and 2008. He also lost his license for a year.
Over the last several years, ten other harvesters, along with Deep Cove Aqua, were convicted in relation to the misreporting of ground fish catches.
"It involved analysis of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents," Bryson said.
The Deep Cove case in Blandford was one of a number of large scale operations that has led to more than 160 findings of guilt and more than $1 million in fines and forfeitures over the past five years, the vast majority of those cases involving the Nova Scotia halibut fishery.
"It was one of the bigger operations we've been involved with in the last 10 or 15 years," said Allan MacLean, Director General Conservations and Protection, Fisheries and Oceans.
The probe started more than five years ago, after Fisheries and Oceans Canada officials started hearing reports about misreported catches in the growing and lucrative halibut fishery.
"Fisheries officers were hearing rumours," said MacLean. "When we started to look at the information that we had, internally, we were starting to see indicators that maybe all wasn't right in that particular fishery."
MacLean said investigators relied on documents from fishermen, processors and buyers, to show discrepancies.
"It was about not maintaining proper records, falsifying records, is basically what we found, when we went to the processing facilities. They would buy halibut and they would show it as another product. So, they weren't reporting accurately and really it was collusion between processors and fish harvesters," he said.
MacLean said Fisheries and Oceans Canada plans follow up operations, to ensure people in the industry understand investigators can find evidence of illegal activity, even after fish have been landed.
"We really hope that the message is getting out there that we take any non compliance in the fishery very serious and that we are prepared to get involved in these major investigations and invest significant time and effort to ensure that the people that aren't abiding by the rules are held accountable."
MacLean says halibut is still considered a "high risk" species, with stocks continuing to increase and fish selling at about $7 a pound.