Nova Scotia

Eel decline in Quebec and Ontario could end industry in Maritimes

​An effort to protect eels in Ontario and Quebec is threatening to shut down the little known but big bucks eel fishery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Species is at risk in Upper Canada, which could make problems for fishermen in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia

Elvers are young, translucent eels. There is debate about the health of the population. (The Associated Press)

An effort to protect eels in Ontario and Quebec is threatening to shut down the little known but lucrative eel fishery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

"What is at stake is the livelihood of people in rural Nova Scotia," said Yvonne Carey of Atlantic Elver Fishery, one of eight Nova Scotia eel fishery licence holders. Another licence is in New Brunswick.

Between 130 and 140 people are employed each year netting adult and baby American eels as they enter and leave rivers in the two provinces.

Yvonne Carey doesn't think eels are in trouble. (CBC)

This week in Dartmouth, officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will review data collected on those rivers as part of a stock assessment to decide whether the Maritime eel population is really at risk. 

The department is considering a recommendation from wildlife experts to declare American eels a species at risk.

In decline in Quebec and Ontario

The 2012 recommendation comes from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, which listed the American eel as threatened because of dams and other freshwater barriers, fisheries, pollution and ocean climate change.

There is no dispute that eels have been in serious decline for decades in Quebec and Ontario, which declared it endangered under provincial legislation in 2007. Dams are blamed primarily for the lower numbers.

Because all American eels in Canada are considered a single population, a species-at-risk declaration would make it illegal to deliberately kill eels, ending the Maritime eel fishery.

Carey argued the population in Nova Scotia is in better shape. "I believe we have the good science to prove it."

Near Chester, N.S., Danielle Pernette of the Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation counted the last of the fall adult eel run on a tributary of the East River.

Danielle Pernette has been studying elver populations for years. (CBC)

She said in 2016 the East River experienced a record run of elvers, the young eels born in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean that return to East Coast rivers each spring. An estimated 2.3 million of the tiny eels made it to the East River.

She said she has seen a steady increase in elvers. The estimate in 2014 was 1.7 million individuals. The exception was 2015 when the population was estimated at 657,000; a brutal winter and cold, high water levels were blamed.

"It's hard to imagine this is a species at risk, given the amount of eels I personally see on a day-to-day basis," Pernette said.

Could be healthy in the Maritimes

Elvers sell for about $2,100 per kilogram and are shipped live to Asia. Licence holders can catch 300 kilograms from one river, but must get no more than 900 elvers. Atlantic Elver Fishery hires 16 to 18 people per season.

"For the last six to seven years we've had good runs of elvers come into the rivers. We have reached that quota within the month in most years. I would say the population is stable," Carey said.

The research under way on the East River and nearby Oakland Lake is an industry effort to demonstrate it is not a threat.

"In 2008, just because the numbers were falling in Quebec and Ontario, that was not necessarily the case in the Maritimes region," Carey said. "We undertook to hire Bluenose Coastal Action Foundation as a third party to come in and take over the elver index."

The federal fisheries minister should make a recommendation to the federal minister of environment next year.