Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

DFO considers making on-board cameras a must in N.S., P.E.I. tuna fishery

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is considering full implementation of surveillance cameras in the Gulf region for the commercial and charter boat catch-and-release bluefin tuna fisheries in 2017.

The move comes as the department struggles to enforce rules for the charter industry

DFO is considering surveillance cameras on all Gulf tuna vessels in part because of challenges enforcing regulations in the catch-and-release charter industry. (Chris Park/Associated Press)

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans is considering making onboard surveillance cameras mandatory in the tuna fishery in northern Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Next week DFO will release to industry its review of a two-year pilot project that saw cameras installed — starting in 2015 — for the first time in a commercial fishery in Atlantic Canada. The rear-facing cameras are aimed only at fishing activity.

The department, which collects and reviews the data, says it may move to full implementation in the Gulf region for the commercial and charter boat catch-and-release bluefin tuna fishery in 2017.

Non-compliance complaints

"This fishery has seen an increase in reports of non-compliance in recent years," says a July 2016 briefing note prepared for the federal fisheries minister.

"Fishery officers have been challenged in trying to ensure an appropriate level of compliance and traditional enforcement techniques have failed in responding to these complaints from the industry."

The document was released to CBC under access to information legislation and supports a request that the minister add a licence condition for the 2016 season that any Gulf tuna fishermen may be required to carry a camera on board.

The department says it needed the mandatory licence condition added because it could not find enough fishermen to volunteer for the pilot project.

Focus is charter boat fishery

The ministerial note says the department has struggled to enforce rules for the charter boat tuna fishery, which started in 2010.

That's the fishery where fishermen take out clients to catch and release the big bluefins. They are allowed to hook and release three per day.

"A review of log data, coupled with observations made on the water and intelligence gathered, supports complaints received by the department about patterns of non-compliance by some licence holders."

DFO pleased with pilot project

Two types of cameras were installed on randomly selected commercial and charter fishing boats in 2015 and 2016.

"Video is still being reviewed, therefore we cannot say if any infractions or violations will result from this project," DFO Gulf region spokesperson Steve Hachey said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

"DFO is pleased with the pilot project. It has provided fishery officers another tool to monitor the fishery. As well, we will be able to share information with other branches of the department on issues such as by-catch, length of time a tuna is hooked-up and type of bait."

More fallout from Operation Hook Up

The pilot project was launched after three tuna fishermen in Nova Scotia were caught cheating in October 2014 during an undercover sting called Operation Hook Up.

Fisheries officers are shown boarding the Zappa 1 on Oct. 8, 2014. (Submitted to CBC)

The symbol of Operation Hook Up was international sports fishing angler Stephanie Choate, who was photographed hoisting a bottle of wine as she sat atop a large bluefin while it was being towed into an Antigonish County port.

At least some of the offences under the commercial licence occurred when Choate was believed to have been on board the Zappa 1. In an information to obtain a search warrant document, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it had reason to believe Choate was in Nova Scotia trying to catch a world record-size bluefin tuna.

Choate was never charged, but the crew were.

In February 2016 they pleaded guilty to 27 charges of illegal fishing. They were banned from the catch-and-release tuna fishery for five years and the commercial fishery for two years.

One of the fishermen — George Boyle — had a commercial licence that allowed him to catch and retain one tuna.

The first tuna caught had to be tagged. He admitted to hooking and releasing 22 bluefin over eight days. On one day alone he caught nine tuna before tagging and keeping the final one.

DFO bureaucrats referred to Hook Up in making their case for cameras.

Camera was 'pretty painless'

Tuna fisherman Kenny Drake, from Morell, P.E.I. volunteered to have a camera on board his vessel for both years of the pilot project. Drake is also a tuna fishermen's representative on the Island.

"They installed the camera on the boat and I had a switch and I switched it on when I went on my fishery," he said in an interview. "It was pretty painless. At the time we realized it was on but never paid much attention."

Gulf tuna fishery representatives in Nova Scotia declined to speak to CBC about cameras.

Fishermen in the charter boat tuna fishery are permitted to hook and release three bluefins per day.

Drake said there are concerns among fishermen about privacy and who controls the data, but he has no problems with cameras.

"If I'm not doing anything that's adverse to the fishery, the camera is what it is — it's just a camera. It shows in detail what I did on the boat that day. If I am not adhering to the rules and regulations then I would be against it," he said.

Who pays for cameras?

In 2015 and 2016, DFO covered the costs associated with the Gulf tuna cameras, including purchasing, installing and maintenance. The ministerial briefing note makes clear that could change.

"If the department moves to full implementation in 2017, a decision will be required as to whether DFO will continue to bear the costs or pass them on to the tuna industry."

That is the case in British Columbia, where cameras have been on board for nearly 20 years.

In 1999 it was brought in for the Area A crab fishery, to deter fishermen from stealing each other's catches. In 2006, 100 per cent camera coverage was introduced to the B.C. ground fishery.

The camera systems can cost $2,000 per trip, including the $180-per-hour cost of observers reviewing the data.

Business as usual in B.C. commercial fisheries 

Despite the added cost, B.C. fisherman Dan Edwards said cameras are cheaper than the alternative: paying for at-sea observers.

Edwards is a ground fisherman who also serves as executive director of the crab fleet, which first adopted cameras.

"It wasn't just simply a compliance tool being driven down from above, but it was something designed by fishermen to maintain the fishery in a cost-effective manner," he said.

"It was much cheaper and much more efficient to use cameras."

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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.