B.C.’s commercial prawn harvesters are angry and confused over the ban on a long-established practice of freezing their catch at sea.
For decades harvesters in remote locations have flash-frozen one-pound tubs of a couple-dozen prawns in native sea water, which allowed them to sell the freshest product possible directly into domestic markets.
This week Fisheries and Oceans Canada announced the practice of tubbing will be prohibited, as the block of ice prevents DFO inspectors from having ready access to the prawns inside.
The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union has launched a petition, calling on Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan to reconsider the ban, saying it is an unfair interpretation of an old regulation.
“Prawn harvesters have been using this method to store their catch for more than 50 years. However, the DFO now claims the time it takes to thaw frozen prawns _ mere minutes _ renders them unable to be “readily determined” for legal size limit measurement,” reads a union statement.
The minimum tail size for prawns is 22 millimetres in length.
The prawning fleet targets medium-sized prawns for tubbing, and were the original advocates for size restrictions, stirring further confusion as to why DFO is clamping down. Industry stakeholders say they were not consulted prior to the decision, and fear for the viability of the fast-approaching prawn season.
In a statement DFO said it will work with industry on a transition to packaging that allows for easy DFO inspection, but that process will not complete until next season at the earliest.
“It would be just horrible for us,” said Prince Rupert prawn harvester Peter Haugen. “Why are they reinventing the wheel?”
Cailyn Siider, who started prawning with her partner 12 years ago, also serves as the community development director for the environmental non-profit, TBuck Suzuki Foundation.
“I’m having a really difficult time understanding why this is coming down,” Siider said. “It’s not just me, it’s everyone in the industry who are completely perplexed.
“There’s no market for small prawns. If there’s no market, why would we catch next year’s harvest? The mesh size in our traps helps the small prawns fall out, and if we do catch them we’re pretty efficient at measuring them on the table.”
The prawn fishery is one of the healthiest fisheries in B.C. with about 2,450 metric tonnes of spot prawns harvested annually.
Due to the pandemic and the subsequent loss of major foreign markets, landed values of B.C. prawns have plummeted 50 per cent in the past year. Harvesters have tried recovering their losses by selling direct to local consumers.
Prawn boats near major harbours like Vancouver and Prince Rupert are able to catch and sell live prawns, but a majority of vessels on B.C. waters are freezer boats. They work hundreds of nautical miles from the nearest port, in a multitude of hidden coastal harbours.
“The export market is fragile, as we learned this year. The prices go up and down in good years and it’s hard to not only make your boat payments but pay your rent. But when we sell into our communities and domestically, we can ensure that we get paid a living wage. And it’s not just about us, it’s also a fair price for consumers, for a beautiful product.”
Ecotrust Canada, who regularly campaigns for the interests of sustainable small-boat fisheries, said the sudden change in regulation has placed additional strain on the livelihoods of prawn harvesters and the local economies of coastal communities.
“This move by DFO will only further push out the small boat fish harvesters who have successfully built a sustainable fishery with a highly celebrated local seafood market for British Columbia. It is yet another policy decision that punishes independent small boat fish harvesters and the coastal communities they call home, and favours a highly corporatized and commodified fishery,” Tasha Sutcliffe, senior advisor for community fisheries said.
Quinn Bender/Local Journalism Initiative Reporter via The Canadian Press