In the past year or so the courts in this province have dealt out some of the highest fines ever to people convicted of fisheries-related offences — in particular to fish harvesters misreporting catches and logbook information in the snow crab and northern shrimp fisheries.
The charges were the result of a major investigation known as Operation Gearshift conducted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
The investigation began in April 2009 and concluded in March 2012, with individual cases making their way through the courts ever since.
In all, 72 fish harvesters were charged, along with seven at-sea observers and one dockside observer.
So far, 70 fish harvesters have been convicted and fined, and the seven at-sea observers and one dockside observer convicted and fined.
The two remaining cases involving fish harvesters are expected to be resolved in provincial court in the coming months.
“The fines have been quite significant. They ranged from $2,000 up to individual fines of $135,000,” said Lloyd Slaney, chief of enforcement operations with DFO, Newfoundland and Labrador region.
“The fines include, of course, forfeitures and the value of fish. The total penalties have exceeded $1 million in this case.”
Slaney said Operation Gearshift was designed as a real-time and retrospective review of snow crab fishing activity in fishing zone 3L (off the province’s east coast), and of activity in the northern shrimp fishery in fishing areas six and seven (ranging from Cape St. Mary’s on the Avalon Peninsula, along the east and northeast coasts to southern Labrador).
“The ongoing focus revealed a number of issues to officers and investigators, things like falsifying fishing log books, which is misreporting the areas of fishing activity to the department,” Slaney said.
“They caught snow crab, and shrimp in some cases, in one area and reported it in their fishing logbook that it was actually caught somewhere else,” Slaney said.
“Other types of offences were exceeding the amount of gear being fished, and exceeding individual quotas, and using fishing gear belonging to other harvesters.”
Complaints about these crimes came to the department in different ways. Fishery officers on patrol gathered information, and tips were provided by fish harvesters and others in the industry. Some complaints came to light during various consultation meetings with industry participants around the province.
“There are a lot of conscientious fish harvesters out there who, from time to time, indicate at meetings and so on there are concerns out there,” Slaney said.
“We take stock in that. When we hear those type of things we tend to listen and use the information gathered by fishery officers out there doing patrols, and they will often hear different things in different communities.
“We will take all the information that’s provided, and when we see that there is concern big enough, we often develop review processes to determine the extent (of the problem).”
Fishery officers not only learned that misreporting by fish harvesters was an ongoing concern, but it had flowed over to at-sea fishery observers and to dockside monitoring.
At-sea fishery observers accompany fishing crews and monitor and record data related to their assigned boat's catch, such as the size of the catch, composition, location and amount of gear used. There are about 80 at-sea fishery observers in the province. They are designated by DFO, but employed and supervised by a third-party company.
The role of dockside observers is to accurately record information about all the catch that comes off a vessel at the point of landing.
The at-sea fishery observers convicted had been charged with transmitting false information about the vessel’s fishing activity to DFO.
The dockside observer was charged with falsifying information about landings.
As Operation Gearshift progressed, DFO officials didn’t expect to see such a high number of people involved.
“In my capacity, I was surprised at the extent, in some ways, but this is not to say that every harvester out there is doing the same activity,” Slaney said.
“I think it was a group that was involved, and the sample (preliminary investigation) told us there were concerns, and the actions taken by the department is significant because the fines and range of fines is quite significant in this case.”
Slaney noted there are a number of positives to come out of Operation Gearshift, not only in uncovering illegal activity, but in supporting those in the industry who are concerned about the conservation of stocks.
“We look at misreporting as a very serious conservation concern and a lot of the processes, from my experience talking to science, stock management is designed to incorporate fairness for all harvesters,” Slaney said.
“And if you have this ongoing activity, it is difficult for these people to do a good job managing.
“Logbooks are designed to get input from harvesters, so this is a significant concern. With these concerns addressed, and open discussions about these concerns at meetings and so on, it will certainly improve.
“From the last report I have, compliance is much better now and that is our goal.”
Suspicious or illegal fishing activity or violations of fish habitat can be reported by contacting the nearest DFO office, or by contacting Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or online at www.nlcrimestoppers.com.