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B.C. spot prawn harvesters say DFO rule could devastate local supply

Last Updated Mar 11, 2021 at 12:59 pm PDT

FILE - B.C. spot prawns. (Courtesy Facebook/West Coast Wild Scallops)

Spot prawn harvesters no longer allowed to freeze catch in blocks of ice at sea

Harvesters argue new DFO rule will have a serious impact on spot prawn industry

Fisheries ministry says it's looking into concerns around changes to rule that no longer allow freezing spot prawns

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – No one seems to know why Fisheries and Oceans Canada has apparently suddenly outlawed flash freezing B.C. spot prawns in blocks of ice at sea, but harvesters say the new directive will likely wipe out a good chunk of the local supply, starting in 2021.

The DFO says the change is in order to give inspectors access to the prawns to measure them. However, James Lawson, president of the United Fishermen’s Allied Workers Union, says the regulator’s new directive doesn’t make sense for a few reasons.

He says if it matters so much, inspectors can borrow kettles onboard boats and take a few minutes to melt some sample blocks to conduct their measurements.

“If they really need it, the fisherman’s union will subsidize them for some electric kettles to get over this because it’s worth so much to us. to just thaw a tub of prawns, or use the deck hose available on the prawners, or use the kettles available on the prawners,” he said.

Because enzymes inside the heads of spot prawns start to break the meat into a mushy substance minutes after the crustaceans die, freezing prawns is the only alternative to rushing them back to be sold to consumers.

There is a second method of freezing that is seemingly still legal but involves dipping prawns in sulfates before flat packing them to prevent the break-down of the meat. It’s known as “boxing” or “finger packing” and inspectors can more readily inspect such bundles.

However, harvesters like Melissa Collier, whose boat is equipped only to freeze and is too slow to deliver live prawns, says even if she is still allowed to pack her catch into boxes, that meat is generally for export only.

Canadians, restaurants, and food processors here are not interested in that product because the sulfates are a heavily regulated allergen in Canada, according to harvesters, who say the new ruling effectively means all frozen prawns will be exported.

Collier, who harvests salmon, scallops, and prawns, says the new rule is threatening up to 75 per cent of her income in a good prawning year.

“Prawn fishing is a very well-known sustainable fishery. What would be so substantial that they would change that interpretation of the law?” she said, adding her season is suddenly up in the air.

“We’re a freezer boat and a lot of the prawn fleet is a freezer boat — it’s a significant portion. Our boat tops out at seven knots — we’re not set up to do live, we couldn’t get set up to do live, it’s just not possible on our boat” Collier explained. “Even if we were, our vessel isn’t fast enough. I mean, it takes us a full day just to get to port. And on top of that, too, prawns is a huge portion of a lot of fishermans’ income, particularly with the direction that salmon is going right now.”

She argues size has never been a conservation concern when it comes to B.C. spot prawns.

“People don’t want small prawns, they don’t have much of a market value. In order to not bring in a product that has next to no value, they put in a size limit,” she explained.

Live spot prawns likely wouldn’t last in a truck to Whistler and would never make it to another province intact, so this effectively makes the product a West Coast exclusive as well, limiting the entire Canadian market.

Guy Johnston is the secretary and treasurer with UFAW-Unifor and says he first heard about the re-interpretation of the old rule in late January.

“It’s a bit strange, everything has been verbal. It happened in meetings with prawn advisors and enforcement from the department of fisheries in late January. We met with a number of different people in the Pacific Department of Fisheries trying to find out if there was a simple way to solve this,” said Johnston.

“We just thought this was a miscommunication. Nobody really could understand why this would happen. It doesn’t benefit conservation, it is obviously a very negative impact on food security for British Columbians and it obviously has a very negative effect on commercial fishermen,” he added.

“Biologically the stock is viewed as healthy and we really don’t understand this at all,” he explained.

In a statement to NEWS 1130, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan’s office says the 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,” the statement reads.

NEWS 1130 asked for further explanation offering the fishers opinion that size is a market-driven factor and not a sustainability issue but received no response.

Collier and other license owners fear they may not be allowed to fish prawns at all as there remains no clarity that finger packing and boxing is indeed still allowable.

The DFO says its goal remains ensuring a sustainable and prosperous fishery.

“We are aware of the importance of the ‘tubbing’ practice to some harvesters, particularly given the challenges industry faces with weakened international markets as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the email continues, adding concerns are being taken 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,” the minister’s office writes.