Toward the end of May, Melissa Collier and her husband Joel, a fourth-generation commercial fisher, will set out on their 13-metre boat, the Lisa Jess, to their spot prawn fishing grounds with 300 traps, plus 50 spares, stacked in the stern.
On the fishing grounds, two to three days from Campbell River, they’ll set six strings of 50 metal and mesh traps on the ocean floor. Once the traps are hauled back onboard, they’ll collect and sort the catch. It’s fast-paced work; it has to be. When spot prawns die, a digestive enzyme starts to break down and as it moves through their body. It can turn the meat to mush, Melissa explains.
For years, the Colliers processed most of their prawns for export, dipping the whole prawn in a preservative, which contains sulphites, before laying it in a box to freeze. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and as restaurants around the world shut down, demand dropped, and the price for prawns in the export market sunk.
While the domestic demand was there to fall back on — and Canadian markets offered commerical fishers a much better price — there is little appetite in Canada for prawns preserved with sulphites, which can be an allergen, says Collier.
Some commercial fishers sell live prawns locally, but their boats have a completely different setup than freezer boats like the Colliers’. These “live boats” tend to be faster, and often fish for larger local markets such as the Lower Mainland.
The Lisa Jess however, maxes out at seven knots (13 kilometres per hour) and even if the Colliers invested in a new setup, returning to port more frequently to sell live prawns would mean too much time away from the fishing grounds.
Instead, the Colliers and other fishers with freezer boats “tub” their prawns onboard for local markets, removing the heads and freezing the tails in saltwater-filled containers. While the Colliers tubbed a small number of prawns for themselves and friends and family before the pandemic, last year they tubbed the majority of their catch.
It’s a process that fishers have relied on for decades.
But the future of tubbing was suddenly thrown into question in late January when, according to the Pacific Prawn Fishermen’s Association, Fisheries and Oceans Canada first informed them that tubbing doesn’t meet regulations requiring prawns to be readily available for inspection.
Commercial harvesters up and down the coast were stunned.
“We have a very short window of opportunity to make a living here, and they’re taking away our highest value products,” says James Lawson, a commercial fisher and president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union. “That’s a huge blow for the economic viability of all our businesses.”
For small and remote communities, the move could limit their access to spot prawns.
“People want local seafood, and we want to supply it,” Lawson says, but “if tubbing’s taken out of the equation, it cuts down on every freezer boat’s ability to provide spot prawns to the local markets.”
“Where am I going to bring hundreds of pounds of live prawns at the end of every day?” says Lawson, who is from the Heiltsuk First Nation, and sells frozen spot prawns in both Bella Bella and Campbell River.
“I’d have to fish a new area, I’d have to forge a new market, I’d have to buy a high-speed boat, it’s totally unviable for me to try and switch to live fishing,” he says.
A statement from the office of Bernadette Jordan, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, said the focus for the upcoming season regarding the practice of tubbing will be on “outreach and education” rather than enforcement. Officials did not provide a response to The Tyee’s questions including explaining the reasoning behind the tubbing ban.
While the minister directed fisheries officials to engage with commercial harvesters, it offers little comfort to Lawson.
“I think they’re just delaying the decision they want, so we’re not going to drop it,” he says.
The idea that freezing prawns in tubs means they aren’t readily available for inspection is a “non-argument,” he says, explaining frozen prawns can be thawed in minutes with a deck hose.
“It plainly doesn’t make sense.”
Gord Johns, the member of Parliament for Courtenay-Alberni and the NDP’s fisheries critic, says offering a one-year extension on the tubbing ban is “just more posturing.”
“They’re not saying they’re going to backtrack from their terrible decision,” he says.
“This is a big part of our economic makeup and our food security and our way of life,” Johns says. “So, this is a big deal.”
According to the prawn fishermen’s association, B.C.’s spot prawn fishery provides jobs for roughly 600 crew members on 200 boats.
Johns says DFO’s reasoning is unclear but it’s “not about conservation.” The department relies on the number of spawners available, not prawn size to determine the health of the stock, he says.
DFO’s own 2018 sustainability survey found the Pacific prawn trap stock is in the “healthy zone,” and B.C.’s wild-caught spot prawns are recommended by Ocean Wise Seafood, an ocean conservation program to help consumers choose more sustainable seafood options.
While latest assessment used by Ocean Wise found “some concerns that the spot prawn population is not as robust as in the past,” it was determined that “responsive, in-season management minimizes concerns associated with fishing mortality.”
“Based on our assessment, we would recommend this fishery,” says Claire Dawson, the senior science lead with Ocean Wise Seafood. “It is sustainable.”
While DFO has committed to consult with commercial fishers on the practice of tubbing moving forward, Lawson says the lack of consultation up front “makes me wonder how serious they are about our input.”
In a statement, Mike Atkins, the executive director of the Pacific Prawn Fishermen’s Association, says that the group is working with DFO to find “a long-term solution.”
But there’s still “a lot of uneasiness” among prawn fishers despite DFO’s plan to focus on education rather than enforcement for this season, Johns says.
There’s a sense among fishers that though they may be getting a free pass this season, they could potentially be fishing illegally — “it’s not a place of comfort,” Johns says.
Collier worries that without clear direction in writing from DFO, “there’s nothing protecting fishermen from being charged.”
“Right now, I’m in a holding pattern,” she says. “I don’t want to go and purchase a bunch of tubs not knowing if I can do that, but I also don’t want to go call my processer and commit to doing an export product if I have other options.”