Guy Johnstone wants answers as to why his livelihood, and hundreds of others across B.C., are being threatened.
Johnstone is a fisherman in Cowichan Bay and operates the Michelle Rose Community Supported Fishery, which catches and sells prawns, salmon and octopus.
He said that, without any consultation or notice and just shortly before the beginning of this year’s spot prawn season, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada has made the sale of frozen-at-sea spot prawns potentially illegal, which could effectively stop the sale of all frozen spot-prawns to Canadian markets.
“This will have a devastating impact on me and my [three-man] crew on the Michelle Rose, which is just the opposite of increasing local food security and makes no sense at all,” Johnstone said.
“Half of my business is selling prawns and that’s now up in the air. It’s not even a new regulation; DFO just decided to reinterpret the existing regulation so that we can’t freeze prawns on the boat anymore. We had a series of meetings with DFO in the 1980s and 1990s to fine tune the system, but apparently DFO has no corporate memory. We have offered to meet with DFO to discuss this, but we keep getting told that these were internal discussions within the department.”
In B.C., about 2,450 metric tonnes of spot prawns are harvested annually, with about 65 per cent coming from the waters between Vancouver Island and the Mainland.
Vancouver-based Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery has launched a campaign to encourage British Columbians to sign an online petition for DFO to change the ruling, as well as to ask residents to send a letter to their member of parliament.
In a press release, Skipper Otto said DFO’s ruling on spot prawns adds insurmountable challenges to an already challenged industry.
The release said that, thrown into chaos by the COVID-19 pandemic, the global export markets for spot-prawns all but disappeared overnight and the price paid to harvesters in 2020 plummeted by more than 50 per cent from the previous year.
“Harvesters turned to and invested heavily in domestic and direct-to-consumer sales of flash-frozen spot prawns to help save their seasons and cover off their enormous debts,” Skipper Otto said.
“The stability of domestic sales was a game-changer across the industry. However, even that is in peril now.”
DFO’s objection to freezing spot prawns is in reference to a reinterpretation of the regulation requiring all harvested products to be readily available for measurement by enforcement officers on fishing boats.
The measurements are typically done while the prawns are still alive on the sorting tables and, up until now, if they were already frozen, the fishermen would be required to thaw the prawns so they could be measured.
But DFO has recently determined that frozen-at-sea spot prawns are no longer considered readily available for measurement, and are no longer allowed.
“DFO has decided that the three or four minutes that it would take to thaw the prawns is unreasonable,” Johnstone said.
“When we were first told of the changes in the interpretation of the regulation, we thought the people in DFO we were talking to didn’t understand what is going on. They have to be consistent with these rules. How am I supposed to know what I can and can’t do if they are not consistent? DFO has said they may, or may not, enforce the new regulation this year, and we’re still looking to have meetings with them.”
Alistair MacGregor, MP for Cowichan–Malahat–Langford, said that instead of taking a proactive, innovative approach to improving food security, this decision by DFO will actually make things worse.
“What kind of policy is that?” he asked.
“People want to support local food producers by enjoying the seafood caught right off our shores and the federal government is actively making that more difficult. It’s especially insulting to all those affected that there doesn’t seem to be a good reason for the change. New Democrats will fight for harvesters and their communities to get rid of this new regulation.”
A statement from DFO said the government supports a cautious approach to fisheries management, one that prioritizes the health and conservation of stocks.
The statement said 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.
“We are aware of the importance of the [frozen-at-sea] practice to some harvesters, particularly given the challenges industry faces with weakened international markets, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said.
“We want to assure commercial harvesters we take their concerns very seriously. We will work collaboratively with industry this season on these changes and ensure harvesters have the support they need now, while working towards a long-term solution. Our goal is, and has always been, to ensure the prawn fishery continues to be as sustainable, productive, and prosperous as possible.”