Standing Up for Our Fishers: An Unsatisfying Conclusion

Sonia - September 8, 2023

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Back in early June, we shared a story about our halibut fisher, Doug Kostering and DFO’s seizure of his catch. It’s been a long bumpy road this summer with an unsatisfying conclusion so we feel it is the right time for an update.

 As a recap, our longtime halibut fisher, Doug Kostering, was accused by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (The Department of Fisheries and Oceans or DFO) of fishing without a licence. After applying to have his commercial licence transferred from his Nation to his boat, Doug unknowingly fished before it was formally issued since the public service strike had delayed licence issuing. This fact only came to the attention of DFO enforcement because Doug was correctly following all the other rules of commercial fishing including many onerous and costly steps: 

  • hailing out and in (phoning the 3rd party contractor who makes sure everything is in order before fishing). Until recently, this step included checking for licences. Why it no longer does is baffling; 
  • running a costly, specialized video system onboard while paying out of pocket for a 3rd party to monitor it; and
  • offloading his catch at a professional offloader, paying a dedicated validator who made note of the weights to subtract from his commercial quota while also applying a physical tag to every fish with a unique serial number.

Only days after Doug’s delivery, when the 3rd party contractor had trouble uploading everything into the DFO system, did the delay in licence issuance come to light. As soon as the DFO licensing office was alerted to the problem, they immediately issued the licence with apologies for the strike-induced delay. At this point, DFO enforcement swung into action.

The halibut had already been processed into fillets and flash frozen by us when we got a call from DFO saying that they were seizing the fish as it had been “caught without a licence.” We held everything in cold storage and spent the next couple weeks working with Doug and the ‘Namgis Nation to sort through this misunderstanding. We naively thought that there would be some compassionate consideration of the mitigating circumstances – that surely a punishment of tens of thousands of dollars to a small-scale fisherman did not make sense given the situation in this case. What we found was that it was impossible to get a response from anyone at DFO, besides the officer involved in the seizure and investigation. As it dawned on us that no one at DFO’s enforcement unit was going to consider the extenuating circumstances, we called our MP to see if she could help with a common-sense solution. Given that our MP was then-Fisheries Minister, Joyce Murray, she seemed like the perfect person to help.

When we reached out to Minister Murray’s office, we were heartened to get prompt assurances that the circumstances certainly seemed to warrant her attention and that seizing all of Doug’s catch due to an administrative licensing delay was unfair. After a personal visit to our facility at False Creek Fishermen’s Wharf, the Minister took some photos with Sonia and the Skipper Otto team and assured us that this was all clearly a misunderstanding. We were relieved and even informed our members that a positive solution appeared close at hand.

A few days later, the same Skipper Otto wharf team was visited by five armed DFO enforcement officers in bullet-proof vests, making a show of attempting to seize the halibut fillets in question (which were not at that location). Given the timing of this “raid” and the pointlessness of the whole visit, the officers seemed to be sending us a message that our decision to involve our elected officials would only make things worse for us. Further conversations with the Minister’s office made it clear that this situation was now out of the Minister’s hands.

During the “raid” at the wharf, we spoke with the lead DFO investigator about our future options on this case. He told us that the seized fish would be put up for auction to a few seafood companies he would personally choose. We asked to be one of those and he said that he would include us in the auction process. We also asked what would happen if we lost the bid since all the fish had our labels including Doug’s photo and story. We were assured that if we did not win the bid, those labels would be removed before releasing the frozen halibut to another buyer.

 At this point, it became clear that there were two separate issues at hand: one being the accusations levelled against Doug and the second issue being the destiny of the fillets involved.  We engaged a lawyer to understand how we should proceed with our attempt to get the fish back. We sent a letter to DFO asking for a response to various questions but the quick DFO response letter simply blamed Doug again for the whole situation and did not address our concerns about what would happen to the fish in question.

Imagine our surprise, when we found out 6 weeks later that a secret bid process – one in which we were not included – had already taken place. We worked with our lawyer to craft another letter seeking an explanation on why the promises to include us were ignored, what actually happened, and assurance that our labels would be returned to us. We also called the lead investigator for clarity and he acknowledged that our recent letter had been received but that he would no longer answer any of our questions. He said someone at DFO would respond. 

We sent that letter on July 15th, and over a month later, on August 17th, we finally got a response. We were somewhat heartened to read that lawyers for the Government of Canada representing the SPMD (the Seized Property Management Directorate) agreed that omitting Skipper Otto from the auction process was improper and that they would redo the auction process with us included this time. Unfortunately, with no response all summer to the fate of Doug’s first catch, we had already worked with Doug and another fisher to catch all the halibut we needed for the season. Since Doug would have seen none of the bid money and we had no need for more halibut, we bid low knowing we would not win, but if we did, we would have a way to make Doug whole on our own. Unsurprisingly, we lost the bid and the SPMD officer let us know that the winning bidder has given him assurances that our labels will be removed while the fish is “defrosted and sold as fresh (previously frozen) in the store.”

While we wish we could celebrate this new turn of events as some kind of just resolution, it really doesn’t address the central injustice at hand – that Doug has earned zero income from his first catch of the year while also incurring its costs due to an administrative delay during the public service worker’s strike. The future timeline for him is incredibly unclear. He remains in limbo with no way of knowing when or if charges will be laid and if he is going to have a chance to recoup any of these lost wages. Either way, a small-scale, independent, Indigenous harvester who has been trying to follow all the onerous and complex commercial fishing regulations of the most heavily monitored and regulated fishery in BC is out tens of thousands of dollars for the foreseeable future. It seems the process is the punishment.

And, unfortunately, that’s the extent of an unsatisfying resolution to an issue that will remain unresolved for Doug for years to come. Between Doug’s lost income, his fishing costs, our processing costs, and our legal fees, a whole lot of unnecessary money has been spent. Based on our summer of interactions with DFO, it feels like they employ the intentional tactics of being petty, punitive, and unresponsive while leaving no paper-trail so that officials can claim ignorance if called on their decisions and choices. We can’t help but feel cynical – that these are the actions (and inactions) of individuals who are insulated from scrutiny by their unelected power and taxpayer funded legal teams. Is it any wonder that fishing families fear running afoul of DFO? The bureaucracy seems uncaring and heavy-handed by design. And it feels like one heck of a poor way to regulate an industry. 

But what bothers us even more is that this is not an isolated incident. Over the last few decades, changes at DFO licensing have offloaded enormous regulatory paperwork and cost burdens onto individual small-scale harvesters. At the same time, enforcement has become militarised, overcriminalizing legitimate small-scale harvesters, adopting a “guilty until proven innocent” approach, and tying harvesters up in costly court battles that can go on for years. It is hard to understate how broken and patently unfair the current system is. Academics, NGO’s, and union leadership have been gathering data and anecdotal stories of other fishing families who have received the same treatment. Together, we plan to advocate for systemic changes so that reform in the DFO will prevent this type of gross unfairness from continuing. We look forward to the opportunity to meet with the new Minister of Fisheries, Diane Lebouthillier, to get her up to speed on these issues.

The good news is that we do not feel like this incident defines Doug or any of us at Skipper Otto. Doug has continued to fish halibut this summer and we carry on with our work of connecting dozens of fishing families to those who want their food dollars to be instruments of change. We are continually grateful for all the members who care enough to help us build a community in an industry that tries to keep people separate by treating seafood like a commodity. Becoming a Skipper Otto member is an act of political advocacy and we’re so proud to have our members in our corner.


Sonia Strobel

Sonia - September 8, 2023

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Standing Up for Our Fishers: An Unsatisfying Conclusion

Sonia - September 8, 2023

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