Numerous charges are expected to be laid in what one Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) official said is one of the largest fish seizures he has seen in his 12-year career in the NWT.
On Sept. 22, Gerald Fillatre, detachment supervisor with DFO, was among officers conducting an aerial surveillance flight to monitor two areas closed to fishing near Hay River when they allegedly observed four commercial fishing vessels illegally fishing those areas.
As a result, 2.35 tons – 4,700 pounds – of fish were seized. The fish were a variety of species and filled 56 tubs that took three truckloads to haul away.
Although the NWT Fishermen’s Federation declined to comment, Beatrice Lepine, a Hay River resident involved with the federation, posted her reaction to the seizure on social media in the days following the event.
“They are resorting to aerial surveillances to ‘catch’ fishermen,” she wrote on Western Arctic MP Dennis Bevington’s Facebook page. “It’s meant to sound ominous by DFO, (but) the fishermen actually were in a temporarily-closed zone that was due to open in a few days.”
According to Fillatre, one of the protected areas where the vessels were allegedly found fishing is closed year-round to protect the inconnu species, and the other was closed for the season because the quota for whitefish and lake trout had already been reached.
Lepine stated that the regulations – and thus the resulting seizure of fish – were based on shoddy research on the part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“The reason the zone was temporarily closed was to protect spawning inconnu stock, (and) based on absolutely no science,” Lepine wrote. “DFO hoodwinked the Great Slave Advisory Committee into temporarily closing a small area. DFO has not done the work they said they would do this spring (such as) genetic testing to determine where inconnu stocks are coming from. Inconnu stocks are increasing all across the lake; just ask people who fish the North Arm.”
Fillatre confirmed the seized fish were sold to the fish plant in Hay River and that nothing went to waste.
The survey and seizure was conducted by DFO officers headquartered in Yellowknife. Normally, there are two officers permanently stationed in Hay River, but recent staffing shortages have left those positions unfilled.
The four-officer DFO team covers the entire NWT. Because of the huge area, the team enlists the assistance of the Department of National Defence and the territorial Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“The territory is so large that we’ve been doing aerial surveillance flights because we can cover a lot more area,” said Fillatre.
Since May, DFO officials have conducted nine aerial patrols in the NWT, and the Hay River seizure came as the result of one of those flights. Officers observed at least one violation of the Fisheries Act during three of the first eight flights. The results of the ninth flight were not available by press time.
Aside from the aerial surveillance, fisheries officers rely heavily on the public to call in illegal fishing taking place in their areas, said Fillatre.
The DFO official asked anyone aware of overfishing, commercial fishing in restricted areas and other infractions to contact the department, the local fisheries office or the poaching hotline.
“Our preference is to get voluntary compliance,” he said. “But when necessary, we will pursue charges.”
Several charges are expected to result from the ongoing investigation into the Sept. 22 seizure.
— Sarah Ladik and Laura Busch