British Columbia

DFO backtracks on rule that harvesters warned would destroy the local spot prawn industry

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has temporarily pulled back on a regulation change that would make frozen-at-sea spot prawns illegal.

Proposed regulation change to make frozen-at-sea spot prawns illegal now an outreach and education initiative

DFO says 'tubbing' will be allowed to continue but is restricting the size of packaging for 2023 and requiring it to be transparent so inspectors have ready access to evaluate whether the catch meets size and species regulations. (Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has temporarily pulled back on a change of regulation that small scale harvesters had warned would destroy the local spot prawn industry.

Earlier this month, the conservation and protection arm of DFO announced it was changing how it interprets a regulation that would make frozen-at-sea tubs of spot prawns illegal effective immediately.

For decades, the celebrated B.C. spot prawn harvest has relied on fishermen who freeze just-caught spot prawns in tubs of salt water — a practice called "tubbing" — to preserve them for transport to local markets.

But the new interpretation of the rule means all prawns have to be "readily available" for measurement by on-board inspectors who enforce size limits. Previously, prawns were inspected as they were being sorted.

"The Minister has been informed that for this season, [conservation and protection's] enforcement posture toward the practice of tubbing will be one of outreach and education," reads a statement from the office of Minister Bernadette Jordan.

"At the same time, [the minister] has asked the Pacific region of DFO to earnestly engage with industry to discuss and discover possible solutions for the longer term."

James Lawson, a prawn harvester from Heiltsuk First Nation and United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union-Unifor president, said the latest announcement is cold comfort.

"They know the solution: just don't bring [the change] in. Everyone is furious — the consumers, the prawn fishermen — it's just ridiculous. People want local seafood and we want to supply it."

People line up at Vancouver's Fisherman's Wharf during the 2016 Spot Prawn Festival. (CBC)

Lawson told CBC that by making tubbing illegal, DFO would be undercutting local markets and prawn harvesters, effectively forcing them to sell to larger industrial outfits who don't pay as well.

He also said making frozen-at-sea prawns illegal for measurement concerns made no sense because if inspectors asked, tubs could be thawed in a matter of minutes using a deck hose or kettle.

Last week, Jordan's office said conservation concerns were behind the decision to ban tubbing.

However, on Monday, NDP fisheries critic Gord Johns, MP for Courtenay-Alberni, told CBC the decision was "baffling" and not based on science.

"They're citing conservation when, in fact, this isn't about conservation, because the regulations that came in on the size initially were about market — it was around the economic side of things and increasing the value of the catch," said Johns. 

Johns said if the tubbing is banned it will destroy the livelihood of prawn harvesters and sellers in local communities up and down B.C.'s coasts.

"It just doesn't make sense. This is going to have a massive impact on so many different people," he said.


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