Five Nations pursue limited prawn fishery despite obstacles

With resourcefulness, perseverance and some elbow grease, the first prawn fishery is taking place despite a number of barriers to success.

In June 2018, the five Nations involved in the Ahousaht et al court case (Ahousaht, Ehattesaht/Chinehkint, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht) were provided one prawn licence from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) as part of a transfer of commercial fishing access.

However, because prawn season runs from early May to mid-to-late June, the Nations were not able to put the access to use until May 2019.

“One prawn licence (300 traps) for over 5,000 members and five whole Nations is wholly insufficient to meet the Nations’ right and interest in the (potentially) high value fishery,” stated Alex Gagne, T’aaq-wiihak Fisheries Manager.

Gagne was responding to a question about the general sentiment around the Five Nations’ limited access to the prawn fishery. While gaining access to more species is a driver for T’aaq-wiihak, the Nations feel they have been prevented from excercising  their priority right with this fishery as a result of the way DFO licenses it.

The prawn access delivered by DFO cannot be fished in the Nations preferred means, which further restricts them in excercising their right to the fishery.

The Nations’ prawn fishery plan outlines an allocation of 50 per cent of commercial-sized prawn in the T’aaq-wiihak Fishing Area (TFA) which would be equivalent to the access from roughly seven licences.

The Nations decided to divide the access from the one licence between three harvesters (100 traps each).  Unfortunately, only a couple of  harvesters were able to make the investments in the vessel and gear required to access the fishery under DFO rules.

Elmer Frank was one of those harvesters. He has been out in his vessel, the ‘Karemarena,’ harvesting prawn seven days a week since early May. Frank has been accompanied by Terry Crosine and on occasion, his son.

Neither Frank nor Crosine had  ever harvested prawn commercially before this opportunity, but both men have worked in fish processing plants and credit their focus on efficiency and quality control to that experience.

“Our background in fish plants really paid off,” remarked Crosine.

The Karemarena was not outfitted for prawn harvesting and required a number of retrofits for optimal function.

“Normally my boat is set up for long lining halibut and salmon troll, so I had to take all of that gear off because we have very limited space as it is and we set it up strictly for prawning. I added a rack on,” explained Frank on a sunny late May afternoon at the Fourth Street Dock in Tofino.

The rack Frank was referring to provides shade during the prawn sorting process. Prawn are light-sensitive and need to be protected from direct sunlight when being sorted. A holding tank with a spray system was also designed and installed, and a salinity tester was purchased. 

The average yield for prawning is approximately one half to one pound of prawn per trap, and according to Frank, he and Crosine have been catching slightly above the average since they began harvesting.

“We’re catching prawns. We’ve found an efficient way to do it that’s working for us,” said Frank.

Honing his commercial prawning skills was just one of the aspects of the fishery that Frank had to deal with.  Finding and negotiating with a buyer was another large part. 

“There are details we’re still trying to work out,” remarked Frank in late May.

Frank and Crosine were at the Fourth Street Dock waiting for their buyer from Walcan Seafood Ltd. to arrive.

Frank met with Walcan (located in Campbell River) in 2018 as soon as he heard about the transfer of access to the five Nations and struck a deal to supply them with west coast Vancouver Island (WCVI) prawn.

According to Franks’ licence, the end date for the fishery is June 30 or earlier based on the Spawner Index (a minimum number of spawning females caught per trap over a 24-hour period).

Until then, Frank and Crosine will do their best to maximize this season’s access.

“Without a confirmation that we will have more access year to year, fishers are unable to have the certainty they need to invest in their businesses,” remarked Gagne when describing the lack of security around the prawn fishery.

As Gagne noted, the prawn fishery is a high value fishery that occurs in the T’aaq-wiihak Fishing Area that the Nations have a right to fish. Current access and licence conditions from DFO are not a sufficient accommodation of that right and limit future development of the fishery.

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