A man who poached crab in the middle of the night in an area of Vancouver Harbour closed to all crab fishing has been banned from commercial fishing for 10 years and has had the boat he was using and all his crabbing gear forfeited to the Crown.
Arthur Michael Nelson of Cape Mudge was handed the penalty, along with a suspended sentence and 18 months’ probation, after pleading guilty March 14 to three charges under the federal Fisheries Act, including crab fishing during a closed time, fishing without a licence and obstructing a fisheries officer.
The charges came about after an unusual fisheries investigation, involving covert overnight surveillance of the suspected poacher from docks in North Vancouver, court heard.
Crown prosecutor Servane Phillips told the court the unusual fisheries investigation began Feb. 27, 2018 when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans received a report from a tugboat captain around 3:44 a.m. that a vessel operating without any running lights was pulling crab traps in the dark from Vancouver Harbour.
A Vancouver Police Department boat located the vessel, the L’il Coho, the next day at the St. Roch Dock in the City of North Vancouver. Fisheries officers then set up the unusual overnight surveillance operation, said Phillips.
Nelson was observed climbing aboard the vessel that evening and making preparations. At about 3:30 a.m. the vessel left the dock and travelled slowly through the harbour, circling several times “in a manner that appeared consistent with dragging a grappling hook for unmarked crab traps,” said Phillips. Officers spied Nelson hauling crab traps on to the deck of the vessel between 3:30 and 4 a.m., then at 4:30 a.m. the boat headed into Lynnwood Marina in North Vancouver, said Phillips, where fisheries officers saw him unloading crab traps from the deck of the vessel.
“There were live cages full of crab on the dock next to the vessel,” she said.
Two fisheries officers tried to arrest Nelson and put him in handcuffs but he broke free, “jumped back into the vessel, grabbed his cellphone that was sitting on the dash of the vessel and threw it in the water,” said Phillips. Nelson was subsequently arrested and taken to the North Vancouver RCMP detachment.
A search of the vessel found it had no navigational equipment, leading fisheries officers to believe Nelson must have been relying on the cellphone GPS to find the unmarked crab traps, the court heard.
Afterwards, fisheries officers used a robotic rover submersible to retrieve an iPhone6 from the bottom of the harbour, which was registered to Nelson, said Philips.
Back on the dock, fisheries officers found 17 crab traps plus two live cages containing 195 crabs, plus a milk crate full of bait. The wholesale value of the crabs was estimated at $2,300, said Phillips.
A heavy chain with a grappling hook made of rebar tines was also seized from the boat.
To put the poaching in context, Phillips told the judge the commercial crab fishery in B.C. is both “very lucrative” and highly regulated.
“The commercial fleet lands $37 million of crab a year on average,” she said. But there are only a limited number of commercial licences granted and the department sets limits on the number of traps allowed for each vessel and particular geographic areas. There are also seasonal and area closures, haul limits and mandatory catch reporting. Legal commercial crab traps must also be marked with a buoy including the vessel registration number.
Vancouver Harbour has been closed to crab fishing from the Lions Gate Bridge to the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing for decades, because of navigational concerns, resulting in a healthy population of large crabs, said Phillips.
For those who are poaching, “It’s very lucrative to do this in an area where nobody else is fishing,” she said.
The fisheries department considers this “extremely serious behaviour,” she said. “This is not a typical fisheries offence. It’s not every night people go dragging for sunken crab traps in Vancouver Harbour.”
The boat Nelson used for the crab poaching didn’t belong to him, said Phillips.
A few weeks before the North Vancouver investigation, fisheries officers had been called out to Steveston, where the same boat had been reported illegally harvesting sea cucumbers, court heard.
When fisheries officers found the vessel, they found a number on the side of the boat that didn’t match any valid vessel identification number and a hull identification number that had been scratched off. No fishing licence was associated with the boat, said Phillips.
A while earlier, Transport Canada had rejected a licencing application for the boat, whose owner was reported as Sammy Williams with further contact address and phone numbers provided associated with Stan and Scott Steer, a father and son, said Phillips.
Both Steers have numerous convictions under the Fisheries Act, said Phillips, adding Scott Steer has “the most serious record known to DFO, and a thorough disdain for fisheries law and a pattern of using aboriginal people to act as proxies on his behalf.”
Williams, an associate of the Steers, is currently facing charges of selling over $100,000 worth of crab caught illegally to a fish plant in Richmond, said Phillips.
The fishing ban handed to Nelson does not include fishing for food, ceremonial and cultural purposes within a specified area that includes traditional fishing grounds of the Cape Mudge First Nation.
Judge Barbara Flewelling told Williams, who was in the court, that he had 30 days to make an application to a judge to get his boat back, but would have to prove he wasn’t connected in any way with the illegal poaching operation.