It’s been held up as a model of a sustainable fishery, but B.C. spot prawn harvesters may be headed for troubled waters.
The industry says Fisheries and Oceans Canada has reinterpreted a key regulation so that spot prawns can no-longer be flash-frozen at sea.
The process, known as “tubbing” is one of the main ways the industry prepares prawns for domestic consumption.
Read more: Price of spot prawns on the rise
“It’s become huge in Canada because it’s another way to market our product, rather than all going to export, and a way for Canadians to get this product,” prawn fisherman Jon Martin told Global News.
“It would affect us huge.”
Sonia Strobel, CEO of seafood distributor Skipper Otto, said the change could be a double blow to families who rely on the annual harvest.
Locally, prawns would have to be sold fresh at market for whatever price sellers can get, she said, while prices on the already weakened export market are also expected to dive due to a glut of fresh product.
“For fishing families who sometimes make more than 50 per cent or even all of their annual income off the spot prawn fishery, that is all thrown into question for this year and for the future,” she said.
“They may not have markets for their catch, or the markets they have may buy prawns for half of what they usually get for them.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it is aware of the industry’s concerns, particularly given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and will “work collaboratively” with harvesters on the change.
“Our government supports a cautious approach to fisheries management, one that prioritizes the health and conservation of stocks. Monitoring and enforcing size limits within the commercial prawn fishery are a critical part of this approach, as it helps ensure the prawns are being harvested sustainably,” a spokesperson said in an email.
But the industry says it’s mystified about why sustainability issues are being raised.
“The last year DFO said there hasn’t been any small prawns that people have been busted for, so I don’t see what the issue was,” Martin said.
Conservation officers have always had the power to come aboard and monitor while prawns are being sorted, he said, while thawing a tub of already frozen prawns for inspection takes about five minutes.
Strobel said the industry itself had taken the lead on conservation out of self-interest, seeking to ensure only large prawns made it to market by regulating the size of holes in prawn traps so that smaller crustaceans slide through.
“I think the spot prawn fishery is a gold standard of sustainability, of abundance, of good management,” she said, adding that the industry was never consulted before the change was implemented.
“So we were absolutely blindsided by this decision because of all the fisheries, this one doesn’t have a history of conservation problems.”
Strobel has spearheaded a petition calling on the rule changes to be scrapped and is also urging anyone concerned about the issue to contact their local MP.
Martin said he’s holding out hope the change will be reversed.
“We’re all owner-operator fishermen, we’re leasing boats,” he said.
“This is a big effect to our bottom line. It will affect a lot of people taking home money to their families.”
-With files from Linda Aylesworth