A Cape Mudge resident involved in poaching dungeness crabs in Vancouver Harbour under the cover of darkness in February 2018 is banned from fishing commercially for 10 years and had the boat he was using – which didn’t belong to him – and all the crabbing gear in it forfeited to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Arthur Michael Nelson pleaded guilty to fishing for shellfish in a closed time, fishing without a licence and obstructing a fishery officer and was sentenced at provincial court in Campbell River on Thursday.
In addition to the fishing ban, which only applies to areas not involved in related Aboriginal fishing rights, and the boat forfeiture, Nelson was also given a suspended sentence, 18 months’ probation with the usual conditions of behaviour, 50 hours of community work service, and 25 hours of counselling. The owner of the vessel has 30 days to apply to get it back.
Furthermore, Nelson is not allowed to have contact with the owner of the boat, Sammy Williams, nor Stanley or Scott Steer, associates with records of past fisheries violations whom the Crown said hires Aboriginal people to engage in illegal fishing.
“These charges arose out of a covert surveillance operation targeting crab poaching in the area of Vancouver Harbour,” Federal prosecutor Servine Phillips told the court in her statement of facts as part of a jount submission with the defence. “Essentially, Mr. Nelson was observed onboard the fishing vessel the L’il Coho hauling unmarked crab traps under the cover of darkness in an area that had been closed for decades due to safety concerns. He was arrested in the early hours of the morning while unloading the crabs at the dock.”
Vancouver Harbour is closed to fishing from the Lions gate Bridge to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge by crab fishing by trap all year round because of the navigational safety concerns, due to heavy port traffic
“It has been for decades,” Phillips said.
Because it has been closed to fishing for safety reasons, it has become a sanctuary for crabs.
Normally, the traps are marked by a buoy with a vessel name and registration marked on them. The traps in question weren’t. They would be located using gps coordinates and then a line and hook would be dropped and dragged on the bottom to catch a line that connected all the illegal traps in order to pull them up.
On Feb. 27, 2018, at 3:45 a.m. the DFO radio room received a tip from a tug boat captain that a vessel matching the description of the L’il Coho was pulling crab traps in the dark in Vancouver Harbour without any running lights. The Vancouver Police Department Marine Unit located the boat at a dock in North Vancouver and DFO set up an overnight surveillance operation.
On the night of Feb. 28, the fisheries surveillance operation was set up involving six fisheries officers. It began at 7 p.m. with officers watching the vessel and observing Nelson climbing aboard it. He was later observed setting off from the dock in the L’il Coho at 3:10 a.m. and travelled through Vancouver Harbour. Officers were watching from the docks.
They saw the vessel circle slowly several times between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. and officers observed Nelson hauling up crab traps before returning to a different dock in North Vancouver.
“Fisheries officers attended there where they observed Mr. Nelson unloading crab traps from the deck of the vessel,” Phillips told the court.
Beside the boat on the dock were live crab traps full of crabs. Two officers attempted to arrest Nelson and place him in handcuffs.
“At this point he broke free from the fishery officers’ grasp, jumped back into the vessel, grabbed a cell phone that was sitting on the dashboard and threw it in the water,” Phillips said.
There was no navigation equipment on the vessel, which led to the conclusion that Nelson was relying on the cell phone to locate the crab traps. The phone was later recovered with a remote operated underwater robot.
Located on the vessel or beside it was 17 crab traps, two live cages and a milk crate full of bait. In total, 195 crabs were seized, five of which were undersized. The retail value of the crabs was deemed to be $2,340. The crabs, which were alive, were returned to the water.
With regards to the no-contact order, Phillips explained to the court the relationship Nelson has with Stan and Scott Steer who are well known to Fisheries Officers. Stan and his son Scott Steer have both been convicted under the Fisheries Act “numerous times.” Stan Steer has been convicted nine times between 2006 and 2016 and the younger Steer has been convicted 25 times during that period. Both are subject to extensive fishing prohibitions. Scott Steer certainly has the most serious record of violations of the Fisheries Act of any person in B.C. known to DFO, Phillips said.
The types of offences that Scott Steer has been convicted of demonstrate “a thorough disdain for fisheries law and a pattern of using Aboriginal people as proxies to commit offences,” Phillips told the court.
Sammy Williams, the owner of the boat Nelson used, is a known associate of the Steers, as well, Phillips said. He is currently facing charges arising out of Richmond with selling to fish plant over $100,000 worth of crab, caught in contravention of the regulations.
In sentencing Nelson, Judge Barbara Flewelling said she was familiar with his circumstances. She noted he pleaded guilty to the charges.
“This is an unusual case in my view,” the judge said. “This appears to have been a reasonably well organized operation.”
The primary considerations in sentencing in a fisheries matter must be to denounce the conduct, prevent the individual engaging in this activity again and to deter others, the judge said, because it is a valuable resource for all the people of Canada.
“This was planned and deliberate. It was hidden purposely to avoid detection, that certainly puts it in the upper range of conduct that is deserving of denunciation and a sentence that will have a deterrent effect,” the judge said.
A mitigating factor in sentencing is the fact that Nelson has pleaded guilty and saved the Crown valuable cost and time incurred by a trial.
The judge also noted that Nelson is taking steps forward to turn his life around and a sentence should not interfere with those positive steps that he has taken.