Officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have revealed that more than $1-million in fines for illegal fishing and habitat destruction have gone unpaid in B.C.
Under questioning at the Cohen Commission, which is examining the collapse of Fraser River sockeye salmon, DFO staff admitted they have no way of ensuring that fines they levy under the federal Fisheries Act are paid. The lack of follow-up means scofflaw anglers may realize they can continually break the rules without breaking the bank.
"If it's widely known that a person could potentially get off without paying a fine, then that could have an effect on compliance and the deterrence level, yes," said Paul Steele, DFO's national director for conservation and protection, under questioning by lawyer Don Rosenbloom last month.
No single sector stands out when it comes to breaking fisheries regulations, as hundreds of commercial fishermen, recreational anglers and aboriginals have been fined for poaching over several years. Fines have also been handed out for habitat violations.
Most fines are under $5,000 for charges such as illegal oyster harvesting or the resale of commercially caught halibut, but last June a B.C. development corporation was penalized $375,000 after pleading guilty to illegally altering fish habitat in the Shuswap Lake area.
Despite repeated calls and e-mails to DFO, the department would not say whether the $375,000 fine has been paid, or how long the $1-million-plus in total fines has been accumulating.
While DFO discusses the mounting fines "from time to time," Mr. Steele told Mr. Rosenbloom that "I know there are issues about the costs that would be involved of us chasing those fines to get collection. There are also some issues around authorities, if I recall. I think there may have been some legal advice to the effect that fishery officers did not have the appropriate authority to execute warrants of committal that would be required to follow through."
DFO has also had difficulty getting assistance from other agencies in its quest to collect fines, Mr. Steele said.
The revelation of DFO's impotence is of concern to the Watershed Watch Salmon Society. "This really casts doubt on the functions of DFO. They have a clear mandate to enforce the Fisheries Act and fish regulations," said spokesperson Aaron Hill.
DFO's lack of enforcement muscle not only puts fish habitat at risk, the unpaid fines mean money that could be used for habitat restoration and stewardship programs is not being spent, said Mr. Hill, an ecologist.
What's ironic, he said, is that the federal government touts law enforcement, while in one of its own departments law enforcement has taken a back seat. "The public certainly has every right to be outraged," Mr. Hill said.
The past president of the Sport Fishing Institute of B.C. was disturbed that the unpaid fine tally is so large and that follow-up is so meagre. "Our organization is always after DFO to increase enforcement, not have less," said Syd Pallister.
Without making sure fines are paid, or keeping an eye on known lawbreakers, conservation is put at risk, Mr. Pallister said. While the odd sports fisherman may get a $250 fine for fishing with a barbed hook, most anglers have conservation at heart.
"We're about wanting to fish for this generation and the next ones. We don't want to be the guy who catches the last fish," said Mr. Pallister, a manufacturer of fishing tackle.
DFO will cut more than $9-million from its budget this year, $19-million next year, and $57-million from its $1.8-billion 2013-14 budget.
Special to The Globe and Mail