Accused recounts receiving help from DFO officials
CUTLINE: Averill Baker speaks to the media in provincial court in Corner Brook Monday afternoon. Baker is defending 11 sealers who were charged with selling a blueback pelt in 1996 and are on trial now. — Transcontinental Media/Western Star Photo by Cliff Wells
By Cliff Wells
FOR THE SOU’WESTER
Transcontinental Media/The Western Star
CORNER BROOK, N.L. — Mark Small said he was “shocked” to be charged with selling a blueback pelt in 1996.
As he testified in provincial court in Corner Brook at his trial on 12-year-old charges of selling a blueback seal Monday, Jan. 5, Small was wearing a Christmas present from his wife — a sealskin coat.
The Wild Cove, White Bay resident and 100 other Newfoundland sealers were charged in November 1996 following incidents in March and April of that same year. He’s among 11 sealers on trial in Corner Brook.
Small said Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials had inspected his vessel four times in the 1996 sealing season, and no one said a word about the hopper hood pelts he had aboard. He said a hopper hood is a sealing industry term for a young hood seal that’s weaned and on its own, but still has a blue back.
He even received help from Fisheries officials locating blueback seals. In a radio conversation he had with an official aboard a plane monitoring the hunt, he was told the taking of the seals he and others were harvesting was legal as long as he wasn’t in the whelping patch, an area where seals congregate to bear their young.
In controlled, measured tones, Small testified he conferred with the observer aboard the boat who said the conversation led him to believe the taking of bluebacks was legally fine. “I think everybody was fully aware that DFO had turned a blind eye to the activities that were taking place in 1996,” Small said. “The official (in the plane) said ‘if you proceed farther north, they’re more plentiful,’ and those seals were hopper hoods. “Up until then I hadn’t harvested any bluebacks or hopper hoods.”
Small was president of the Canadian Sealers Association for 15 years, beginning in the 1980s, and has since been president of the Northeast Sealers Co-operative, which buys and processes seal meat. He has been a member of the Seal Advisory Committee for Fisheries and Oceans. He has no interest in giving the industry a black eye by flouting the regulations. He said if he had been found to have an illegal gun aboard the ship, such as a .22 calibre, he would have been charged immediately, not months later with a trial 12 years down the road.
Small said he advised Fisheries officials in the first week of the hunt that year there may be more than 3,000 hood seals taken — the quota at the time. He said 8-10 days later the fishery was closed.
He testified a Fisheries officer had told him on the last day of the hunt that if he was to get any more seals, he’d have to go because the hunt was closing at 6 p.m. that night.
He believed he had a firm grasp of the rules at the time and knows 101 sealers didn’t deliberately go out and break the law. Small said price lists, publicly available, were broadcast on the radio and featured categories for hopper hoods.
The taking of bluebacks was carried out in the open and nothing was hidden, so he said the charges were a complete surprise to him. “I was shocked and astounded because, for years sealers from all over the province were taking in bluebacks and selling them commercially to the buyers,” he said in an interview after his testimony. “...There were boats tied up to the wharf with a full load of bluebacks on board and no charges were laid and no warnings were given. This certainly led sealers to believe that the activity that was taking place was perfectly legal.”
Defence lawyer Averill Baker said the case is likely the longest summary prosecution in Canadian legal history.
Baker said the prosecution has been dogged in its pursuit of the charges. “For years we were tied up in appeal courts because every time the sealers had a victory, DFO would then decide to appeal it. Even when the Ford Ward (a licensed fisherman and sealer from La Scie who harvested approximately 50 seals, a number of which included hooded bluebacks) case was going on, DFO dragged Ward all the way up to the court of appeal. Ward was successful and DFO dragged him up to the Supreme Court of Canada for another beating.”
She said the case seems a little discriminatory. While none of the Newfoundland sealers had any whitecoats, she said the investigation was initiated on whitecoats that were seized belonging to a vessel from the Magdalen Islands in Quebec. “None of those French sealers were ever prosecuted for those offences,” she said. “Instead they turn around and decide to charge the Newfoundland sealers for something that had always been allowed in Newfoundland.”