Undercover fisheries officers were shocked when they found an estimated 11,000 abalone in the back of a pick-up truck near Port Edward on February 20.
“We had no idea of the numbers,” said Brian Sexton, one of the officers who had been hiding along the shore in camouflage gear as individuals transferred a haul of the illegally harvested molluscs from a vessel to a vehicle.
The three males were apprehended for illegally possessing more than a tonne of Northern abalone, a species that has been declared threatened since 1999. The fishery has been closed since 1990 due to extreme conservation concerns.
“Money was obviously a motivating factor,” said Mr. Sexton. He says abalone sells on the black market for $25 to $100 a pound and the men had 2,470 pounds in their possession.
Mr. Sexton said it was the biggest bust in BC history, but he could offer no more details about the charges or the individuals involved as the case is still being investigated.
The Prince Rupert Daily News has reported that residents of the Queen Charlotte Islands were involved, but DFO would not confirm this allegation.
Mr. Sexton has been with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for seven years and said before this, the biggest violation he’d seen was 40 pieces.
The officers normally do a full count of the contraband, but he said the animals, which were still alive, were starting to die, so they decided to get the abalone back in the water.
It took two days to reseed the molluscs in a variety of locations along the coast. Fisheries biologists are hopeful that some will survive.
“The numbers make me sick. It’s disgusting,” says Brian Jubinville, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Species at Risk Act coordinator based in Nanaimo.
Mr. Jubinville says the number of animals seized indicates they did not all come from one location on the coast, and therefore several populations may have been impacted.
What bothers Mr. Jubinville most is that throughout the 16 years since the ban on gathering abalone was put in place, the population has not recovered.
“The stocks have continued to dwindle,” he says. After this illegal harvest he is concerned that the reproductive potential of remaining creatures will be threatened.
“Scientists believe the single greatest threat to abalone is poaching,” he says, “And episodes like this do not aid their recovery.”
Mr. Sexton says fisheries officers had been investigating the file for two years. Their investigations are based on intelligence gained through surveillance and public complaints.
“It must be very frustrating to first nations up and down the coast and especially on the Charlottes,” he said.
Mr. Sexton noted Haida Fisheries has an abalone recovery program which turns large crab traps in “condos” for the abalone to be safely reared.
The men were released on a promise to appear in court. Possible penalties could include a fine of $500,000 and/or two years in jail.
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