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Global positioning systems threaten shellfish

Shellfish smuggling may have reached the space age.

Conservation authorities believe poachers are using Global Positioning System devices to keep track of their illegal crab and prawn traps while hiding them from the fish police. GPS devices use satellite navigation to pinpoint exact locations. They are available at marine supply stores. A 12-channel GPS sells for $199 at Canadian Tire.

The commercial fishery uses underwater traps that are usually tied by rope to a floating buoy with a licence number inscribed on it. This means fishery officers can go into a bay, spot the floats and pull the traps to check that the commercial fisherman is complying with regulations. Traps used by recreational fishermen have to be identified with the owner’s name on the buoy.

“If they’re not using floats we have no way of knowing the gear is there,” said Paike. “So they come in surreptitiously with GPS and position their boat and drag up their gear and then retrieve the product and return the trap to the water. We have no way of knowing the trap is there.” Paike believes the smugglers retrieve the traps by dragging with a grapple hook or by partially submerging the floats and using GPS to locate them.

Shellfish smuggling is a significant problem on Vancouver Island. Since February, fishery officers have recovered 30,000 pounds of illegally harvested clams from the Nanaimo area. They are concerned that clams harvested from contaminated areas could make unsuspecting people very sick. They also have health concerns about crab and prawns harvested in areas such as Crofton and Victoria harbour, where there are prohibitions because of heavy-metal contamination and dioxins.