Dealing with fish after landing ….

There have been a number of stories in the media regarding the recent trial and conviction for breach of recreational fishery regulations of what is described as a “luxury fishing lodge on Haida Gwaii”, resulting in a $35,000 fine to Queen Charlotte Lodge. Linked to this are reports of a trial and conviction a year earlier at nearby Naden Lodge on similar charges.

I’ve written before about the generally poor coverage the recreational fishery gets in mainstream media, with inaccuracies and ill-considered story headlines having the ability to cause significant socio-economic damage to the fishery infrastructure. This time was little different with several stories featuring phrases such as “illegal fishing” and “illegally catching dozens of halibut and salmon”, none of which are actually true but the damage has been done to the reputation of the businesses concerned and, more broadly, to the BC recreational fishery itself.

None of the information I’ve been able to review indicates that the fish were caught illegally, for example by exceeding daily bag limits or breaching some other conservation restriction, rather the charges stem from what happened after the fish were landed, during processing and storage. In an almost uniquely un-sensationalized comment the local paper, the Haida Gwaii Observer, reported “The most serious violation pled guilty to was cutting the halibut in such a way that it couldn’t be measured by inspectors”. Being able to ascertain the size, species and number of individual fish caught by anglers is unquestionably a key requirement for those responsible for the care and processing of sport caught fish between landing and final transport but is quite a different issue than illegal fishing.

Clearly laws were broken around labeling and other processing requirements and, especially, regarding possession limits – individual anglers are only allowed to be in possession of two single day limits of any species away from their primary home residence. Some of the offences related to staff attempting to stockpile fish before taking it home after working a summer-long season in a semi-remote location, with others misguidedly claiming that the lodge was in fact their primary residence which would have, in theory, facilitated the stockpiling.

The earlier case also involved the use of sport caught fish being served to guests at Naden Lodge. This is a tricky one because you likely can appreciate that visitors would like nothing more than having the very freshest seafood to eat while on their coastal vacation. In theory these meals cost money so the lodge provider has to charge a fee for them, usually a part of a package price. However sport caught fish can’t be sold so, unless there happened to be a commercial fishery underway nearby and someone willing to sell fish from it on a regular basis, the chances are that any seafood available to the meal provider would be frozen and come from some distance away, not the basis for the special dining event desired. Anglers could of course request that some of their catch be served but that would be deducted from their available possession limit. Having spent a considerable sum of money on the chance of catching and retaining, for example, up to four chinook or two halibut, consuming some on the spot isn’t really an attractive option to most anglers hoping to take fish home.

I’m not trying to defend those who were convicted, just trying to provide some context after the inaccurate coverage of the trials by most media – obviously mistakes were made and the price is being paid. As well there were other consequences not reported on – all those staff involved in the charges at Naden Lodge, up to and including the general manager, were fired demonstrating the owners commitment to making sure such things don’t occur again in the future.

All this has taken place against the background of a wider discussion that has been underway for close to two years between the recreational fishery and DFO around the transportation and custody of fish not in the immediate possession of an individual angler. As noted possession of fin and shellfish caught in the recreational fishery away from home is capped at two single day limits. Given that much recreational fishing activity in tidal waters takes place in such circumstances, and completely so for non-residents of Canada, dealing with this issue without turning most anglers into criminals is key to sustaining a high value, moderate impact fishery that brings far and away the largest socio-economic return to Canada of any use of these fish.

In years past transportation of sport caught fish belonging to others was facilitated by a covering letter from the angler with all the pertinent information – name, address, recreational license number, where and when fish were caught, how many and of what species and so on. Regrettably a few bad apples abused this and after persistent reports from some areas DFO sought advice from the federal Dept. of Justice, which quickly declared that these “informal” letters of authorization wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. Ever since possession of an angler’s fish by someone else prior to delivery at either the anglers home or to a licensed processing facility is illegal meaning that no one can possess another angler’s fish, not even other family members on the same trip.

Examples of how this could seriously undermine an otherwise law abiding, discretionary recreational fishing activity – one it should be noted that other government agencies are doing much to promote – are too numerous to describe. About the only good news in this is that both recreational fishery interests and DFO are keen to see this matter resolved as quickly as possible in a way that works for all, one that doesn’t end up making criminals out of many anglers who have otherwise obeyed all the regulations governing the fishery or eliminating a key service delivery function but which is enforceable enough to prevent past abuses from occurring in the future.

Illegal fishing is one thing, and should be eliminated wherever it occurs, but what happens after legally caught fish are landed needs the thoughtful attention of those responsible for them between the dock and their final destination.