Wednesday, February 8, 2023
February 8, 2023

Fulford Harbour crabbers coming up empty

Squinting into the sun, Robert Reinhardt thinks he’s spotted another boat pulling alongside one of his crab pots. 

“Wouldn’t that be something,” he says excitedly, and noses his boat out of Fulford Harbour, burying the throttle.  

Reinhardt is captain and crew, owner and operator of “Fishes Wish” boat charters, and today heads out under a midwinter blue sky. He’s in the usually upbeat business of creating great memories for vacationers — mostly in the summer, but increasingly over the cooler, wetter months. When weather and regulations permit, his days are often filled shuttling hopeful tourists between his favourite fishing spots, hooking salmon — or not hooking them, as the case may be.  

Today, the business is a little more sombre; he’s on the lookout for crab poachers. 

When it comes to crab fishing, the west side of Fulford Harbour might be the worst-kept secret in the Southern Gulf Islands. The sea floor here boasts vast underwater forests of eelgrass, at just the right depth for Dungeness crab to thrive; indeed, the popularity of the harbour among commercial crabbers led to years of overharvesting, and at one point pushed Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to halt crab fishing altogether. 

As the Dungeness population recovered, restrictions were relaxed to allow non-commercial harvests, delighting local crab lovers. Opinions vary as to whether Fulford’s “Dungees” are sweeter than those hauled up elsewhere, but Salt Spring Islanders fully embraced the return of recreational allowances. There are dozens of floats speckling the water today, and while the brimming-full overnight pots of the past haven’t fully returned, a good “soak” for several days will still bring in the daily limit.  

But evidence of poaching has put local crabbers on edge; weekend pot-pullers are worried their laid-back practices are being exploited. Traps that aren’t checked as often are coming up curiously empty, sometimes with access panels unlatched.  

“It was very consistent until this past summer,” said Reinhardt. “That’s when we started finding weird things, like only one trap would have crabs and another two wouldn’t have anything.” 

The empty traps would have suspiciously clean lines connecting them to their respective buoys; generally, even after just a few days, a layer of biological growth builds up on the rope. 

“If I check a line I haven’t checked for a while, and it’s got no growth on it,” said Reinhardt, “I know — especially if it’s summer — I know someone’s pulled it.” 

Reinhardt’s wire traps, like many out in Fulford, are heavier than one might expect; no small percentage of recreational crabbers on Salt Spring are former commercial fishers, and even though they’re now harvesting at recreational limits — four crab per day, two traps per fisher — they’re partial to heavy-duty equipment designed to last multiple seasons.  

“It’s not someone going out in a rowboat from Fulford,” said Reinhardt. “They’re going to need a mechanized way to pull these up.” 

Crab poaching’s effect on the tourist economy here is surprisingly direct, an aftershock of restrictions put in place to protect a different sort of visitor. In recent years, large stretches of the Salish Sea have been closed to salmon fishing when the first Southern Resident Killer Whales are spotted each summer — off the west and south coasts of North Pender, South Pender and Saturna islands, as well as between Prevost and Mayne. While the orca are fishing, people have to try their luck elsewhere, usually until the end of October. 

Retired fishing guide Sean Hart said for small-scale charter fishing operations on Salt Spring, a loop back to a full crab pot made for a good end to the day for a client who might otherwise be going home empty-handed. 

“We have limited fishing here, with the restrictions in the summer months,” said Hart. “Sometimes one of the only things these guests are going to take home with them is a couple of crab for dinner. It’s tough to swallow when they all come up dry.” 

Hart still drops his own crab traps in Fulford Harbour, and said the resource there is a special one. 

“I’ve crabbed all over the Gulf Islands, and it’s just been beaten up so hard commercially, it’s really hard to find them anywhere,” said Hart. “Fulford is one of the only spots we have locally that isn’t open to commercial fishing. Then just all of a sudden, this last year we’ve been noticing our traps have been pulled, gates left open, bait cups missing — and obviously, no crabs.” 

Today, the suspicious-looking boat Reinhardt sighted by his traps is just passing through. Relieved, he re-tells a story of the old days, when “poaching” sometimes just meant an anonymous neighbour had emptied out your pot, but left behind a six-pack of beer.  

“At least they left something in the trap,” chuckles Reinhardt. “But now I’m getting concerned about the numbers, because if they’re working more frequently than we are, that’s obviously going to impact crab populations.” 

A check of DFO’s published data suggest convictions for crab offences under the Fisheries Act are relatively rare — there were three in the province in 2022, each resulting in a $345 ticket for retaining undersized crab.  

It’s difficult to spot a crab poacher, unless they’re doing something obviously illegal, like working in a restricted area, or setting and hauling traps at night. In the past, people on shore recognized boats and even trap buoys, and would call owners if they spotted someone hauling a friend’s trap, or anything else suspicious. But there were plenty of Dungeness to go around.  

Today, suspicion is in better supply than crab. 

“Yesterday I was just going out fishing,” said Reinhardt. “I saw some guys speeding away from the traps, and I’m like ‘Oh, I wonder if that guy just poached me.’ It’s so hard to know, right?” 

DFO has a phone and online reporting system for violations of Fisheries Act regulations — the Observe, Record and Report or “ORR” system — which can be accessed by calling 800-465-4336 or by email at DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@dfo-mpo.gc.ca. DFO also suggests anyone who has had their equipment destroyed or stolen should report the incident to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 

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