A huge number of fines issued for illegal fishing have gone unpaid, raising serious questions about the federal fisheries department's ability to deter poaching.
More than $1 million in fines are currently unpaid in B.C., officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) disclosed in recent testimony before the Cohen Commission into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon.
Since most fines are less than $5,000, the total unpaid reflects hundreds and perhaps thousands of individuals who have refused to pay, confirmed Randy Nelson, DFO's assistant director of conservation and protection.
Nor is there any mechanism with any teeth to enforce payment.
"We don't have a system to collect and follow up," Nelson said under questioning before the inquiry April 8. "It is of concern to officers."
Paul Steele, DFO's national director-general for conservation and protection, told the inquiry the problem gets discussed "from time to time" but the department has been reluctant to spend the money required to pursue unpaid fines.
He also said DFO has trouble getting other government agencies to collect fines on its behalf and fishery officers may also lack the legal powers to execute warrants themselves to enforce payment.
Steele admitted under questioning from lawyer Don Rosenbloom the situation threatens to undermine DFO enforcement efforts.
"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," he said.
The more than $1 million in unpaid fines is a cumulative total that's built up over the years and includes all outstanding fines for Fisheries Act violations – illegal fishing by sports anglers, First Nations and commercial fishermen as well as habitat violations.
Rosenbloom said later he was "shocked" by DFO's admission of outstanding fines and its failure so far to act.
Craig Orr, executive director of the Watershed Watch Salmon Society, also said he was disappointed by the high number.
"The environment and the fish are the losers when we don't collect those fines," Orr said, noting the money can often be channelled into stewardship projects or habitat restoration.
"They need to improve that system," said Sto:lo fishery adviser Ernie Crey, another regular observer at the sockeye inquiry, who pointed to impending budget cuts at the department.
"They're about to lose $57 million over the next two years. And they need to find ways of collecting this money if they hope to enjoy credibility on the fishing grounds. So you have a double incentive to go collect these fines."
Dennis Brown, author of the book Salmon Wars and a researcher watching the commission, said illegal fishing at upriver sites has been repeatedly flagged as a concern by past inquiries and DFO's disclosure will anger commercial fishermen.
"We see less and less enforcement in the budget," Brown said. "If they are that badly off they can't even collect fines for the convictions they've got, our resource is dreadfully in peril."