Nfld. & Labrador

DFO sting targeted my son for catching and selling smelt, father says

A Gander Bay South man says his 12-year-old son was unfairly targeted by a Department of Fisheries and Oceans sting over $20 in smelt.

'We're not a poaching family,' says dad after catch is confiscated

Jayden Harris, 12, began selling the smelt he catches -- $2 a dozen -- a few years ago, but says he didn't know it was illegal until a visit from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Submitted/Donnie Harris)

A Gander Bay South man says his 12-year-old son was unfairly targeted by a Department of Fisheries and Oceans sting over $20 in smelt.

Donnie Harris told CBC News his son, Jayden, has been catching and selling the small fish for the last few years — for just $2 a dozen — and this year posted an ad on a classified website using his father's account.

Saving money for an ice shelter

Jayden said he hoped to attract a few more customers with the ad on the website.

"I wanted to get some money to buy an ice shelter," he told CBC on Monday.

Last Wednesday, Jayden's ad prompted an email from a "Bob Smith," requesting 10 dozen — four fresh, six frozen — and said he'd be by around the next afternoon. 

His father said such a request was not that unusual. 

"He gets calls anyway, because people all around, even from Gander, all around, know that he's smelting all the time," said Harris.

Jayden — home from school on a snow day — went out to fill the new order.

He just loves doing it, and I can't take him off the ice from doing that when he could be into drugs or breaking into stores or some other mischief.- Donnie Harris

"I went up that evening and got his fish for him and cleaned them and got them ready and put them in bags," he said.

"He only catches what he can sell," said Harris. "He just loves doing it, and I can't take him off the ice from doing that when he could be into drugs or breaking into stores or some other mischief."

The next afternoon, with Jayden back in school, Smith stopped by to pick up the fish. Harris said they chatted for a little while about Jayden's love of fishing.

"So he knew, even before he done what he done, that it wasn't me, it was my son that he was setting up," said Harris.

Eventually, Smith paid $20 for the fish, and about five minutes later he returned — this time with a DFO truck and three officers.

Father 'lost it' 

"The man that bought the smelt was walking up over the driveway, and he said, 'B'y, I'm sorry to tell you this, but I'm a fishery officer,' and he said, 'I feels bad about it, but you're not allowed selling smelt.'"

Harris said he "lost it," and told the officers that it was his son who was doing the fishing and selling it, and that no one in the family knew what he was doing was illegal.

"Obviously we didn't know," he said. "If I was going to do something illegal, you wouldn't post it on the internet, for starters."

Obviously we didn't know. If I was going to do something illegal, you wouldn't post it on the internet, for starters.- Donnie Harris

Harris said he warned the officers this was all going to come down on his son.

"I said, 'We'll go over to the school and we'll take him out of school, and you can officially charge him for selling smelt,'" said Harris.

"And he said, 'Oh no, I won't be doing that.' I said, 'No, because you don't have guts enough, eh?'"

Minor not under investigation: DFO

Lloyd Slaney of the DFO says an investigation was launched after complaints from the public about "sales of large-scale quantities of smelt" in the Gander Bay area.

"It's important that we clarify there was no time in this that a minor was under investigation in this case, and to date we have not laid any charges," said Slaney, DFO's acting regional director of conservation and protection.

Slaney said he couldn't comment on Harris's specific case, but said when DFO is aware of minors illegally catching or selling fish their approach is to speak to the parents and educate everyone on the rules.

"It is illegal to sell, trade or barter fish without a licence that permits the sale of fish," he said.

Slaney added the investigation is ongoing.

"I would ask the public to reflect on the information we're providing and to make decisions about what they might say about that, once they learn the information we're providing today."

Harris said he's being charged because he was the one who collected the money and handed over the fish. He has been told to expect a formal charge, but he doesn't know what the penalty is. He said all DFO had to do was let the family know what Jayden was doing was illegal and they would have stopped.

'We're not a poaching family'

"I've never poached in my life. My father's never poached. We're not a poaching family," he said. "If I'd known that was illegal, my son wouldn't have been doing that."

Jayden said he wasn't too concerned when he was told he wouldn't be allowed to sell smelt anymore — he was more worried that his dad is facing a charge for something he didn't do.

"I got the money I needed, so I was all right with it," he said. "I bought my ice shelter." Jayden estimates he made about $150 selling smelt this year, and he topped it up with birthday money for a $200 shelter.

Father more upset than son

Harris said he was more upset than his son was.

"I said, 'Jayden, listen: What them men done there to you, it's just another form of bullying,'" he said.

I got the money I needed, so I was all right with it.- Jayden Harris

"'We've got people out there, supposed to be protecting us, supposed to be protecting our fish, our wildlife, all the rest of it …There's a lot of them out there that does a good job, and are doing their job. But there's always some that's not out there for what they're supposed to be out there for. Those fellas, it's just another form of bullying."

Harris posted an angry response on the classifieds website, which he said was his way of sticking up for his son, and is hoping to get in touch with his member of Parliament over the matter. And he decided that he wasn't going to stop his son from smelting — there's just the question of what to do with the fish.

"He's selling the bags now," he said. "And the smelt is free."