Nova Scotia

Balaclavas, hidden licence plates and midnight violence — why Nova Scotia's baby eel fishery was shut down

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray shut the Maritime elver fishery down for 45 days on the weekend because of violence and rampant overfishing by unauthorized harvesters.

Elvers are Canada's most valuable fish species by weight, selling for up to $5,000 a kilo

River flowing over rocks.
Fitzroy River flowing into Hubbards Cove on Nova Scotia's South Shore has been the scene of elver poaching this spring. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Hubbards, N.S., resident Ann Gagnon witnessed a fishery gone wrong — up close — and it left her shaken.

"There was men with hooded balaclavas and licence plates covered up. That's when we called 911 and the RCMP," she recalled of the first night the poachers appeared in late March.

They were after tiny and translucent baby eels, also called elvers or glass eels, on the annual spring migration from the ocean into Maritime rivers.

Elvers are Canada's most valuable fish species by weight, selling for up to $5,000 a kilogram and shipped live to Asia where they are grown for food.

"It's a little bit traumatizing, honestly with a lot of vehicles coming at all hours and noise. It's been going on since March 24. Sometimes six hours a night. I've been disturbed. Woken at three in the morning, four o'clock in the morning. It's not been very pleasant."

A woman smiles for the camera in an outdoor photo taken with a river in the background.
Ann Gagnon of Hubbards says men with balaclavas and hidden licence plates have shown up near her home to fish elvers illegally. (Paul Palmeter/CBC News)

The tiny Fitzroy River outside her home empties into Hubbards Cove west of Halifax and is just one site of unauthorized elver fishing and conflict in Nova Scotia.

Last week, the RCMP say a man was assaulted with a pipe in a middle-of-the-night altercation among elver harvesters in Hubbards that resulted in assault and weapons charges.

Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Joyce Murray shut the Maritime elver fishery for 45 days starting on the weekend because of violence and rampant overfishing by unauthorized harvesters.

"It was simply too dangerous to let this continue, as well as my concern about the stock because this is a part of the life cycle of the American eel and that is a species at risk," Murray said Monday in Ottawa.

'DFO knew this was coming'

But critics and some commercial licence holders say Murray and the federal government share some blame for what happened this spring.

"DFO assured the licence holders that they had a plan to make sure this didn't happen," says Michel Samson, a lawyer who represents Wine Harbour Fisheries, one of nine commercial licence holders in the Maritimes.

"And yet, even before the fishery opened, DFO was receiving reports from the licence holders of illegal nets, illegal fishing and chose not to take action even before the season opened. So this was predictable. DFO knew this was coming. They could have brought in additional resources," he said.

Commercial licence holders have paid the price for the shutdown. They estimated half their quota was uncaught when DFO closed the fishery.

A pair of hands cupping hundreds of translucent baby eels that resemble worms.
Elvers are young, translucent eels that leave the ocean and enter maritime rivers in the spring. (The Associated Press)

Wine Harbour Fisheries had harvested just 33 kilograms out of a 1,000-kilogram quota because elvers arrive later in eastern Nova Scotia.

"It's devastating for the company to not have the opportunity to catch more of its quota," Samson said.

"For the employees, they're clearly not going to qualify for the employment insurance benefits because they've only been employed for a couple of weeks rather than having a full season of benefits."

'Beyond ridiculous'

Nova Scotia Conservative MP Rick Perkins represents South Shore-St. Margarets, where much of the illegal fishing occurred, including Hubbards.

"It's beyond ridiculous that the minister shut down the fishery because the poachers caught the quota, not the licence holders. While DFO stood by and didn't enforce the law," Perkins said Monday during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

Murray denied that contention.

"This year, we more than doubled enforcement capacity. We work collaboratively with the RCMP to ensure that it was even stronger enforcement," Murray responded.

'A huge escalation of illegal fishery'

Later, she said poachers came from "outside the Maritimes, outside Canada."

"It was just a huge escalation of illegal fishery. It was simply too dangerous to let this continue and we'll have to really reflect on how this fishery is managed for next year," she said.

"So we now have time to do some consultation and analysis on that, but I was not prepared to take the risk of harm to human life, which was certainly a possibility, and nor am I willing to take a risk of the the undermining of this stock, which is a very important one, and that was also is a risk."

DFO says it carried out 741 patrols and made numerous arrests and seizures.

RCMP responded to 31 elver fishery complaints

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Marshall says Nova Scotia RCMP has responded to and investigated 31 complaints of criminal activity related to the elver fishery in 2023.

It laid charges in incidents where officers believe, on reasonable grounds, that a criminal offence was committed.

"The RCMP will continue with our efforts to promote public safety and fully investigate all complaints that we receive. We encourage people to report any criminal activity to police and violence will not be tolerated," Marshall said in a statement to CBC News on Monday.

A troubled fishery

This is not the first time DFO was forced to shut down the elver fishery.

In 2020, the department closed it after an unexpectedly large influx of Mi'kmaw harvesters appeared on rivers.

Some were asserting their treaty right to fish for a moderate living. Others fished elvers under a food, social and ceremonial licence for American eels.

The department later amended food, social and ceremonial eel licence conditions to prevent the harvest of elvers that are under 10 centimetres long.

Net strung across a river.
A fyke net used for catching baby eels on the Fitzroy River. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

In 2022 and 2023 DFO took 14 per cent of the commercial quota and gave it to some — but not all — Indigenous groups.

They have been awarded communal licences in support of moderate livelihood.

DFO accepted individual management plans developed by First Nations.

This year in southern Nova Scotia, Kespukwitk First Nations (Acadia, Annapolis Valley, Bear River and Glooscap First Nations) designated harvesters from among their members to fish a 450-kilogram allocation, an increase of 50 kilograms compared to 2022.

The Wolastoqey Nations in New Brunswick (Madawaska Maliseet, Tobique, Woodstock, Kingsclear, St. Mary's and Oromocto First Nations) designated harvesters from among their members to fish a 750-kilogram allocation, an increase of 550 kilograms compared to 2022.

Indigenous people not authorized to fish by DFO continued to assert a treaty right to fish elvers in 2023.

Commercial elver licence-holders have complained for many years that both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have been illegally fishing rivers assigned to them exclusively by DFO.

While the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs has complained about non-Indigenous encroachment and intimidation of authorized indigenous elver harvesters, it has not responded to a request for comment on encroachment by other Indigenous people.

Nor did it respond to a request for comment on the shutdown ordered on the weekend.



Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.

With files from Chris Rands

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