The Fight for BC’s Spot Prawn Fishery Continues

Sonia - December 15, 2021

Thank you for your help with putting pressure on the DFO to overturn their latest decision on spot prawn tubbing! Signing our petition is easy. You can also scroll down for any background info to get caught up!

And if you aren’t familiar with what happened this year, you can watch this background video, or continue reading to dive in!

DFO’s Announcement in March

Earlier this year, the DFO made an announcement just two months before the spot prawn season was set to start, stating that it was now illegal to freeze spot prawns at sea in tubs of sea water — the method employed by small-scale harvesters to preserve their catch. The DFO’s new interpretation of the Fisheries General Regulation was that spot prawns frozen in seawater weren’t “readily available” for inspection. For 50 years, on-board inspectors have inspected prawns on sorting tables while live or they’ve quickly thawed tubs of frozen tails to measure the telson length (tail) to ensure fishers weren’t retaining undersized prawns. This new regulatory change had no conservation purpose and would only hurt small-scale, independent harvesters, and fuel the export market. You can read our blog from earlier this year for the full story.

Standing Committee Sessions

In June, two emergency sessions of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans attempted to expose a deeper understanding of the issue. Harvesters, the DFO, and concerned organizations including Skipper Otto were called to witness to the committee. As they dug deeper, members of the committee were as baffled as we were about how and why this reinterpretation came into existence. The MPs of the committee established that there was no thorough consultation with the harvesters in the industry on the change.

By the end of the sessions, it was pretty clear that the standing committee unanimously saw no reason whatsoever for the change to the practice of tubbing and freezing prawns at sea. Following the emergency sessions, on June 21st, the Committee submitted a strongly worded letter to the Minister outlining 14 recommendations including:

  • Establish a standard tub size in consultation with industry that can be quickly and efficiently thawed for inspection by no later than 31 December 2021,
  • Implement a timeline standard so that any regulation changes or reinterpretations must be announced no later than 180 days prior to the opening of the prawn fishing season.
  • Apply a “local-access” lens in its regulatory decisions to ensure that due consideration is given to the access of fresh, locally, and sustainably caught seafood in coastal communities.

That letter and its recommendations were submitted to the Minister on the final day that the house was in session before the house was dismissed for summer. And then an election was called, and a new minister appointed.

No Consultation from the DFO

In mid- November, with the first deadline of “180 days prior to the opening of the prawn season” upon us, I hadn’t heard anything. So I called together the members of our Spot Prawn Task Force to hear if any harvesters or associations had heard anything from DFO. They had not.  

We weren’t even sure if the new Minister was aware of the issue and the recommendations of the standing committee, so I submitted a letter recapping the past year of proceedings and asking her to take swift action to “consult and provide clarity to prawn harvesters busy making plans for the 2022 season.”

The next day, one of the members of the Spot Prawn Task force received a call from Neil Davis, the acting Regional Director of the Fisheries Management Branch in the Pacific Region of DFO. He said that they were consulting with industry and working on a tub size standard which they expected to have in place by Dec 31.

And on December 7th, the DFO sent out this letter to the Pacific Prawn Fisherman’s Association, a non-profit organization which “represents the 250 British Columbia prawn by trap license holders.”

A New Standard Tub Size

It turns out they did reach a tub size standard — an 8 fl oz plastic container*, one third the size of the regular container harvesters have used for decades. How this will enable spot prawns to become more “readily available” is unknown to us. And it proves that whatever consultation the DFO was undertaking was clearly not with the folks who are packing spot prawns into containers at sea. This will require more labour, fuel, plastic and other costs for fishers, driving up the cost of prawn tails to the public and driving many harvesters to abandon selling their prawns into domestic markets.

I wanted to know why DFO thought this was a good idea so I performed my own test by thawing a pack of prawn tails and packing them into a sample 8 fl oz container we got from our packaging supplier. I was only able to fit 6 prawns into this new package as opposed to the 23 prawns (about 1 lb) that were in the 24 fl oz pack and I’m not even sure there’s enough room for water in there to prevent freezer burn on just 6 prawns! Given the amount of plastic in each package and how many more packages will be needed, we did the math and found that this change will amount to a 100% increase** in the amount of plastic waste produced by the industry! And as you can see from the photos, you still can’t measure the telson length or even see the tails of all the prawns no matter what size package they are in. So what is the point of the smaller package?

A 24 fl oz container vs 8 fl oz container, with spot prawns frozen in seawater. The larger container fits 23 prawns (equal to 1lb). In my experiment, I found the smaller container can only fit 6 prawns.

And now, with just days left before the winter holidays, we’re left with a week to provide feedback to the DFO before they incorporate this new regulation into the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan at the end of the month. We need to make sure this announcement doesn’t get lost amidst holiday chaos, and shed light on the senseless nature of this entire saga.

Harvesters need clarity around what’s going to happen with the spot prawn season in 2022. They need to be able to make plans around all fisheries without fear of being whipsawed by sudden changes with no consultation or communication! And you know, it sure would be nice if all this hard work ushered in a new era of transparency, meaningful consultation, and good faith between DFO and harvesters.  

Help us by signing our petition now!

Want more info? We’ve got a list of resources in case you’re interested!


*The DFO’s letter from Dec 7 proposed a container size with “a volume size no greater than 250g”. Since grams aren’t a measure of volume, we assumed they meant 250mL (which is 8.45 fl oz). And even if they meant a container that fits no more than 250g of prawns, that still doesn’t solve anything!

**The 8 fl oz tubs weigh .04lbs each, and the 24 fl oz tubs weigh .08lbs each (packaging suppliers are mostly based in the US, hence the imperial units). Sonia fit 6 prawns when she did her experiment with the small tub, while larger tubs fit 23 prawns. So, you would need roughly 4 small tubs (.04lbs*4=.16lbs) to package the same amount of prawns. 0.16lbs is twice the weight of the large tubs! Sonia was using the only 8 fl oz tub we could find from our packaging supplier, so of course it’s possible that the DFO could select a more optimal container for packaging more prawns. This is unlikely based on the lack of consultation with harvesters. But, if true, it’s still a smaller container — again, this solves nothing!

Sonia - December 15, 2021

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The Fight for BC’s Spot Prawn Fishery Continues

Sonia - December 15, 2021

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