This article has been updated, February 3, 2020. See the Q&A at the end.
Pawning and sportfishing go hand in hand, especially when you are out on a beautiful crisp winter day, chasing winter springs. Even if the day doesn’t produce a keeper fish, there’s always the excitement of pulling up a few traps to find a bounty of BC spot prawns.
Spot prawns are a delicacy. That’s probably why they are so hard to find. I can’t remember ever seeing them in a grocery store; the bulk of commercially harvested spot prawns are shipped overseas to places like Japan, and BC retains a very small amount.
According to the Pacific Prawn Fisherman’s Association website, the commercial prawning industry is a “Limited entry, with a maximum of 246 prawn licenses. Each license may fish up to 300 traps, with the restriction of hauling each trap once per day between the hours of 7am and 7pm. Up to 2 licenses can be fished on one vessel, which is referred to as ‘stacking;’ in this case a stacked vessel can fish a maximum of 500 traps, once per day. BC’s commercial prawn fishing season opens in May and generally closes in mid to late June … The commercial prawn and shrimp by trap fishery is one of the most valuable in the Pacific Region, accounting for a landed value of $35.3 million in 2013. For many years, until the mid-2000s, prawns were almost exclusively exported to Japan. Prawns are now enjoying a higher demand in other export markets such as China, as well as in domestic markets. A strong and expanding desire for sourcing local and sustainable food has put a bright spotlight on the B.C. wild prawn, and domestic demand is expected to show continual growth.”
How Much Do BC Prawns Cost?
I don’t know any recreational fisherman who may look at their catch in monetary value terms; it’s an enjoyment return, eating your own catch. For sake of interest, I popped into Sea Drift in Nanaimo to check the going rate for spot prawns and how a change in recreational limits effects a “sporty’s” catch. In the store, it was selling for $77.00/kg, shelled.
Let’s look at the change in catch limits over time, in present-day monetary value:
1987 Recreational Daily Limit & Possession Limit: 12 kg in shell / 4 kg shelled ($308.00)
1996 Recreational Daily Limit: 5 kg in shell / 2 kg *154 shelled ($154.00)
Possession Limit: 10 kg in shell / 4 kg shelled
2002 Recreation Daily Limit: *200 pieces ($154.00) (approximately the same as 1996).
Possession limit of 400 pieces
*In 2002, the limits were changed based from weight, to a count of units. The DFO used an average piece count of 40 prawns to 1 kg, in shell, which equated to the same amount of catch.
Effective April 1, 2020 the new limits are:
Recreation Daily Limit: 125 pieces ($96.25)
Possession limit: 250 pieces
According to the DFO document, “The reduction in the daily limit for recreationally caught prawn is considered a longer-term sustainable management measure that can be applied coast wide.”
However, if sustainability is at stake, why are recreational fisherman the only ones seeing a restriction?
If we assumed a commercial fisherman caught 125 per trap at their 300 trap-a-day limit, they’d be hauling in $238,875 of catch. With 246 licensees, that’s a $59 million per-day catch.
Without understanding the pressure numbers on the resource by all groups, it’s unclear why commercial and First Nation are not also seeing a reduction, if sustainability is the issue.
“Over the last several decades, Prawn harvest has become an increasingly valuable and important part of BC’s fisheries, placing increased pressure on the resource. The commercial Prawn harvest is one of the most valuable fisheries in BC and First Nations are harvesting Prawn in increasing numbers for Food-Social-Ceremonial (FSC) purposes, often using commercial gear. The recreational harvest of Prawns has grown, with increasing effort, increasing interest, and advances in fishing gear and equipment (e.g. fish finders, chart plotters, power trap haulers). The daily limit has been in place since 1996 and has been viewed as unreasonably high, as it was an arbitrary number when adopted. Concerns about the recreational daily limit have been raised by First Nations, commercial harvesters, and DFO through annual consultations. This has made efforts to manage First Nations harvest of prawn for FSC purposes challenging.”
Island Fisherman took several questions from our readers to the DFO, of which only one was answered at the date of publishing.
IFM: The document clearly states that, “The commercial Prawn harvest is one of the most valuable fisheries in BC and First Nations are harvesting Prawn in increasing numbers for Food-Social-Ceremonial (FSC) purposes, often using commercial gear.” However, further restrictions are only being applied to the recreational sector. Isn’t this simply a reallocation from the recreational sector to others?
DFO: Everyone involved in fishing (First Nations Food-Social-Ceremonial (FSC), Recreational and Commercial) shares a responsibility to manage fisheries resources. In recent years, DFO has adjusted management of the prawn fishery for all sectors. Conservation is the highest priority in fisheries management. After conservation, DFO provides priority access for FSC harvest opportunities. Since 2016, First Nations have been required to obtain a supplemental licence when using commercial gear and vessels to fish for Prawns for FSC purposes. DFO has implemented several additional measures for the commercial harvest sector in recent years to more closely manage their fishery as well, including a reduced fishing season and increased requirements for onboard vessel monitoring and reporting systems.
Clyde Wicks, a recreational angler and past chair of the Area 17 (Nanaimo) Sport Fishing Advisory Board (SFAB) stated, “This is not about conservation. It is a direct reallocation of a resource from the public fishery to the commercial and First Nations harvesters. Any prawns saved by this 37% reduction in the recreational daily limit will be vacuumed up by the other sectors who traditionally take well over 80% of the prawns. Recreational anglers support a precautionary approach; however, it must be a true conservation concern and it must be applied to all sectors.”
Below are the remaining reader questions that we asked the DFO to comment on. After 4 deadline extensions, these questions remain yet to be answered, but if they are, will update them here. We suggest adding your questions to the end of the article for consideration.
UPDATE February 3, 2020:
IFM: According to the DFO document, “The reduction in the daily limit for recreationally caught prawn is considered a longer-term sustainable management measure that can be applied coast wide.” Our readers are unclear as to how reducing limits on recreational prawning creates “sustainability” when commercial pawning runs on a fixed escapement model, where the stock is fished to a Spawner Index.
DFO: The popularity of prawn fishing for recreational purposes has increased substantially and there are areas of high use, by all sectors, where local depletions can occur. Reducing the daily limit is part of a broader effort by DFO to ensure responsible fishing practices and sustainable prawn harvests throughout the BC coast. The number of egg-bearing females present in the population provides an important measure of stock status. For this reason, the primary assessment tool fisheries scientists and managers use to regulate sustainable populations is the spawner index, a minimum number of spawning females caught per trap over a 24-hour period. The spawner index is a biologically based, science peer-reviewed reference point.
Although the use of the spawner index supports conservation on a coast-wide scale, prawn populations can change rapidly and constantly over their short lifespan.
IFM: Why does the DFO not have a mortality cap on prawning—i.e., a T.A.C. (a Total Accumulated Catch amount)—to then divide between all vested parties (Commercial, Recreational, First Nations)?
DFO: Please see previous response. It should also be noted that after conservation priorities have been met, DFO is legally obligated to provide priority access for Food, Social, and Ceremonial (FSC) harvest opportunities.
IFM: Since the DFO doesn’t monitor recreational fisherman with catch reporting, what data does the DFO have to assess the total pressure of the recreation sector on prawning stocks?
DFO: This is a precautionary fisheries management decision made to ensure stable access to the recreational fishery for the future. The new limit of 125 per day brings British Columbia closer in line with regulations in neighbouring Washington State, where the daily limit is 80 in many popular prawning areas. However, in contrast to Washington State, where the recreational fishery is closed from mid-October to early May, BC harvesters will continue to enjoy opportunities year-round.
IFM: Even at a limit of 200 pieces with a local retail market value of $154.00 and now a limit of 125 at a value of $96.25, it doesn’t seem that pawning would be financially attractive to a recreational fisherman to exclusively target for a day’s activity. And with the gear, time, and locations of prawns, it would seem very limiting to the vast number of recreational fishermen, anyway. If the DFO has no data due to no catch reporting, it doesn’t seem like there would be a large effect. For instance, on a calm day, one might find 5 to 10 recreational traps in front of Nanaimo. The gains don’t seem like a sustainability measure.
DFO: This decision was based on conservation and addressing First Nations’ concerns about FSC access, not the market value of prawns and other shrimp. The value of fishing for a recreational harvester is not about market value to purchase the fish. It is about the opportunity, experience and ability to harvest and eat freshly caught BC fish. It is illegal to sell fish or shellfish caught with a recreational licence and violators may be charged under the Fisheries Act.
IFM: To summarize, the main question that we are hearing is what objective recreational catch and effort data is supporting this decision?
DFO: There have been significant increases in the recreational sector’s fishing capacity for prawns; for example, through common usage of power haulers that were formerly prohibited. Detailed data about recreational prawn catch and effort, and prawn stock status throughout the year across parts of the coast, are limited. This is a precautionary fisheries management decision made to ensure stable access to the recreational fishery for the future. Recreational harvesters are required as a condition of the Tidal Waters Sport Fishing Licence to report information on their recreational fishing activity and catch to DFO representatives when requested to do so. Harvesters are reminded that they are required to provide accurate information under the authority of section 61(5) of the Fisheries Act. Recreational harvesters may be asked to provide important catch and effort information by a fishery officer or designated DFO representative through an internet survey, at the dock or through a creel survey. These surveys have helped improve data collection in recent years.