Politics

The hunt for B.C.’s most notorious fisherman


Just before midnight on March 1, 2020, with a steady rain pit-patting onto Vancouver Harbour, the SeaBus was making one of its final runs of the day to the North Shore when the captain noticed a small vessel directly ahead. Roughly eight metres long with an aluminum hull, it was a style of boat typically used by commercial crab fishermen—odd, because the busy harbour is off limits to fishing. The boat’s lights were off, but a few people could be seen milling around on its deck. The SeaBus captain reported this suspicious traffic to the Coast Guard.

On a Coast Guard patrol ship in nearby English Bay, Leslie Sanderson was awoken and briefed about a boat that might be fishing where it shouldn’t be. Sanderson, a field supervisor at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or DFO, immediately had a pretty good idea who the culprit was. Almost any DFO officer would have guessed the same name. So he and three officers rushed to one of their high-speed Zodiacs, fired up its twin outboards and whipped under the Lions Gate Bridge to start the hunt.

Through binoculars, a crew member quickly spied the suspect vessel, which was lit only by headlamps worn by the shadowy figures on board. The boat was listing slightly, with a trap-hauling line extending into the water. The patrol vessel edged up to within a few boat lengths, then switched on its blue emergency strobe. The fishing boat’s operator quickly grabbed his wheel and sped away.

The patrol boat gave chase at up to 40 knots, or 75 kilometres per hour—absurdly fast for the middle of the night in a crowded waterway. The fleeing boat made erratic turns, veering perilously close to an anchored freighter. One of the men on board could be seen clutching a jerry can, frantically refuelling as the boat zigzagged through the harbour. But a standard fishing craft can’t outrun a DFO Zodiac. The crab boat gave up, pulling up at North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay. Just before Sanderson stepped aboard, the skipper tossed his mobile phone into the water.

Strewn about the deck were traps containing about 250 Dungeness crabs, one of the most lucrative products in B.C. salt water. It was a haul worth several thousand dollars. Sanderson quickly identified the skipper, wrestled him to the deck, yanked off the man’s heavy fisherman’s rubber gloves and handcuffed him. The DFO had caught Scott Steer. Again.

***

Every year, officers in the DFO’s Pacific region collar a handful of serious rulebreakers, some more brazen than others. Scott Steer is in a class of his own, the most prolific poacher on the West Coast. He’s been busted for illegally catching just about every type of fish in the north Pacific: halibut, ling cod, sablefish, crab, prawns and more, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of quality catch over the years. He has been fined repeatedly, and when that didn’t work, the courts began throwing him in jail, while simultaneously slapping him with an escalating series of fishing prohibitions. When Sanderson’s crew nabbed him that night in Vancouver, Steer was already banned from so much as setting foot in a fishing boat until 2038.

Steer, who is 44, stands a sturdy six feet, with greying stubble and weather lines around his blue eyes. He’s combined a lifetime’s worth of fishing know-how with the ability to spin a good tale. He is notorious for persuading those around him to give him what he wants—a loan he might not pay back, or a boat he can borrow for a poaching mission.

Steer has sustained his pattern of deceit for well over a decade. Though he is white, he has made use of special Indigenous fishing rights, and is even alleged to have posed as a First Nations member to access funds set aside for Indigenous fishermen. Steer did not respond to repeated interview requests placed with his lawyer and his wife, but people in the fishing world are astonished that he never went legit after so many fines, boat seizures and escalating penalties.

The DFO officers whom Steer deplores, meanwhile, keep hoping they’ve ended the game of cat-and-mouse-and-court-order that has defined their enforcement efforts against him. And yet they worry he has learned from his arrests and is getting better at evading capture.

Scott Stanley Matthew Steer appears to have come by his dishonest streak honestly. His father, Stan Steer, is a commercial fisherman based at a small Fraser River inlet called Annieville Slough, not far from the family’s home in Delta. Like Scott, the elder Steer is notorious among West Coast fishermen and Fisheries officers: he has a lengthy record of Fisheries Act charges and convictions up and down the coast. In 2010, for example, Stan went out with his boat, the Steer Clear, to lay crab traps in McIntyre Bay, on the northeast tip of Haida Gwaii, a day before crab season officially opened. Authorities confiscated 153 traps and returned 1,854 live crabs to the ocean. A judge fined him $20,000. Then, over 18 days in 2015, he was caught three times trying to trap prawns using a boat owned by a B.C. First Nation, yet couldn’t show authorities documents proving he had rights to use the nation’s Indigenous fishing licence.

Stan began taking his son out on fishing trips around the time Scott was six, during spring and summer breaks, and the younger Steer grew up around the wild-and-woolly skippers and deckhands Stan would hire. By his teens, Scott was getting odd jobs in boat repair, while taking traps out on his own. He was quiet, awkward and a little bumbling, recalls Dean Keitsch, a commercial fisherman who knew him back then. As he matured, some colleagues remarked he looked like a ling cod, a fish whose head is comically large for its body. They gave him the nickname “Buckethead.”

Over time on the docks and decks, though, Steer developed confidence. He became known for a willingness to learn the stuff others wouldn’t, and built his mind into an unofficial coastal reference guide. A colleague could phone him if he needed intel on boats for sale, the best deals with wholesalers or who was willing to lease out lucrative commercial licences.

On the West Coast, as on the East, those licences are a form of currency. The federal government began setting up the system in the late 1960s, and by the time Steer was playing first mate on his dad’s boats, the rules covered practically every species fished. The zones, quotas and caps on the number of licences in this regime are intended to serve twin purposes: to prevent overfishing and to ensure there was enough income to go around. It’s a kind of supply-management system for the seas.

For common species such as shrimp, there are a few hundred vessel licences. For others, like rare sea urchins, there are only a few dozen. All are in demand on the transfer and leasing markets. A study done for the DFO pegged the average value of a licence to commercially fish for halibut at $33,000 in 2019, and a fisherman must pay more for a by-the-pound annual quota. The average value of a crabbing licence, by comparison, was $1.1 million, and each permit holder was limited to one of seven coastal areas. But there’s a big payoff: in 2019, fewer than 200 B.C. vessels were licensed to catch crab, yet those boats hauled in $92 million worth of catch, an average of nearly $500,000 per vessel.

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Over time, regulations have expanded to include minimum fish sizes; trap specifications; logbook requirements; and, for some fisheries, mandatory on-board video monitoring devices. Record-keeping has become as important as lines and bait.

As the rulebook grows, though, so does the incentive to poach. Without the costly burden of licences and legally approved gear, lawbreaking fishermen can undercut their legitimate competitors by selling at below-market rates to wholesalers and trading companies, while still collecting tidy profits. Some buyers of illicit seafood are duped by fraudulent catch documents. Others are simply willing to look the other way. The catch, meanwhile, can end up almost anywhere: upscale urban restaurants, supermarkets in mid-sized cities, or, as with crab, the cargo holds of airplanes bound for China, where there is little in the way of oversight. Harvesting fish out of season, or in an area that is off limits year-round, can be particularly rewarding. They are plentiful, and there’s no legitimate competition.

Poaching, however, takes investment, knowledge and constant effort to evade detection. All the energy Steer has wasted ducking authorities could have been spent leasing a licence, working hard and going legit, observes Kelvin Campbell, a veteran B.C. crab fisherman. “It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s almost like he likes to get caught.”

***

The first time Steer was found breaking commercial fishing rules, he got off lightly. It was the fall of 1998, and he was skippering a boat called the Lucky Kari on a halibut fishing trip. At the dock, a DFO officer came by and spotted a glaring omission: the ID number all commercial fishing vessels must display on their sides and roofs. Further inspection revealed that Steer’s fishing gear was registered to a different boat—another infraction. What’s more, his deckhands couldn’t provide the necessary fisher’s registration cards. Authorities didn’t catch Steer fishing, but the offences were tantamount to driving somebody else’s car without a licence. Steer got off with a warning.

The following year, he was in Port Hardy, on northeast Vancouver Island, casting long lines for halibut. At the docks, where fishermen must weigh their catches before witnesses, he brought in not only halibut but 46 pounds of ling cod, which make great restaurant fish and chips. But the ling cod fishing season for that area was closed. Somebody reported Steer to Fisheries officers, netting him his first ticket for a commercial fishing violation.

Over the next few years, DFO officers would not be the only ones having problems with Steer. In 2006, a Vancouver-based seafood processor called Harbour Marine Products began advancing him large sums for boat upkeep and crew salaries, on the understanding he would pay them back in fish. Steer sold some of the catch elsewhere and soon stopped paying back the loans. The company sued, winning $135,144, but needed garnishing orders to recoup the money.

His schemes grew more complex over the years, pulling in more people and companies. In 2008, he persuaded two members of a First Nation on Vancouver Island to transfer him their special licence to catch fish for food, social or ceremonial purposes. Authorities say Steer intended to sell the fish, offering the Indigenous licence-holders a generous cut of the proceeds. It was the type of promise-the-sky arrangement for which he would become infamous. Steer fished for weeks under the cover of Indigenous rights, from the north end of Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii. He brought a massive haul to a processing plant in Port Hardy, where he flashed the Indigenous designation to bypass other layers of regulation. The plant filleted and boxed 5,000 pounds of halibut and nearly 4,500 pounds of ling cod, along with other fish. Plant staff assumed he was bringing it to First Nations for their consumption, so they marked the several dozen boxes “not for sale,” as required.

By then, DFO officers were onto Steer. They’d received tips on his dubious claim of First Nations rights, and had even done aerial surveillance on his boats. That April, officers followed Steer’s white cube van from Port Hardy to the B.C. Ferries terminal in Nanaimo, then over to Vancouver.

There, they trailed him to a Wendy’s parking lot alongside the Grandview Highway and watched him make a deal with somebody in a truck. After that, Steer flung open his cube van doors and began selling fillets to passersby at rates far below what supermarkets charge—$1 per pound for whole ling cod; $7 per pound for halibut. An undercover Fisheries officer bought some ling cod from Steer, at which point the team arrested him. For all of those offences, he received a $3,500 fine. (This wouldn’t be the last time Steer tried to take advantage of First Nations fishing privileges. As recently as 2020, he applied for fishing loans and grants from the Native Fishing Association, posing as an Indigenous man named Terry Seymour, according to allegations filed in court. He did not face charges.)

By 2010, a Vancouver-based seafood company was sizing up Steer to lead one of its tuna-fishing expeditions. Word of his misdeeds was out: one of the company’s owners had heard accounts of Steer’s fraudulent use of Indigenous fishing rights. But when the other owners met him, they were intrigued by his experience and brash promises to bring in loads of fish. Despite his past wrongdoing, they hired him to skipper their 15-metre boat Pacific Titan, with a warning to follow the rules. They had reason to think he would comply: as a condition of its licence to catch sablefish, the boat was equipped with a video and GPS monitoring system that it was required to constantly run. If he strayed from the rules, there would be a digital record.

Steer’s crew didn’t catch much tuna. To his bosses, he blamed this failure on the stress from the breakdown of his first marriage, and a desire to spend more time with his kids. In fact, Steer had taken out the Titan and cast his lines deeper than tuna swim, going instead for halibut, which can sell for more per pound than beef tenderloin. During these secret forays, a judge later found, Steer turned off the Titan’s GPS and video systems so there was no digital record of how much fish he was landing. Crew members later testified seeing the deck of the boat covered in halibut. Steer deliberately brought those hauls to shore in the dark of night, the court said, so he could avoid validation—a legally required process where the catch is weighed before a Fisheries official.

It is against the law to sell commercially caught fish that has not been validated, but that didn’t deter Steer. Using a new cellphone and the alias John Renton, he sold frozen fillets from that trip as far afield as Dawson Creek, in northeastern B.C. Out there, Steer sold sablefish and halibut to an old friend, and offered her commissions if she secured other sales. Fisheries officers followed the delivery to her house and seized the catch. Steer’s friend was furious to learn he had sold her fish illegally. When she confronted him, according to court documents, he retorted: “Keep your mouth shut. If you don’t say anything, you can’t get in trouble, and neither can I.”

Steer was charged in the Pacific Titan case with selling illegally caught fish, failing to keep the GPS running and landing fish without validating them. It soon became clear his employers weren’t the only ones he’d cheated. By bringing in his hauls at night, Steer had also skirted the typical revenue-sharing arrangements with crew hands, which are based on official catch weights from the validation process. One of those hands, a newly landed German immigrant named Florian Spika, complained that his former skipper had bilked him out of several months’ wages from their time on the Titan, and gave damning testimony when Steer was prosecuted.

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The judge in the Pacific Titan case called Steer’s treatment of Spika “an act of moral bankruptcy” and ordered him to pay the crew member $15,000 in restitution. Steer also got a six-month jail sentence for selling illegally caught fish, along with his first ban from fishing: he would not be allowed to board a fishing vessel for 10 years. “Mr. Steer represents a threat to the health of the fishery,” the judge wrote, “and should be prohibited from participating in it.”

Still, Steer’s offences kept piling up. In 2015, officers found unmarked traps, full of crab, that he’d placed in Vancouver Harbour. He violated his sentencing conditions two more times the following year, and with each new conviction, the courts extended his fishing ban—first to 15 years, then to 17, then to 22. His record has made him legendary among DFO officers, many of whom have monitored, investigated or busted him over the years. Still, the DFO can convict somebody only of the crimes they can prove, and officers have investigated Steer more times than they’ve busted him. After they nab him, he tends to get out of jail in mere months. (The maximum sentence for most Fisheries Act offences is two years.)

Besides, poaching is a problem that goes beyond one man. Between three and five per cent of all fish caught in Canadian waters goes unreported, potentially winding up in the illicit trade, according to estimates from a 2020 global study co-authored by Rashid Sumaila, an economist with the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. That’s not bad, comparatively speaking: in other countries, far greater shares of the catch are harvested under the radar. Still, it amounts to between $97 million and $156 million worth of fish.

‘Mr. Steer represents a threat to the health of the fishery and should be prohibited from participating in it,’ wrote one judge

Industrial-scale operators land a sizable share of that, in some cases mixing a bit of illegal fish with their legit catch—a practice that’s hard to trace because it requires a paper trail. But eight-metre boats like those Scott Steer has used are difficult to track, too. There are barely more than 600 DFO officers watching over Canada’s coasts, rivers and freshwater lakes. Only about a quarter of them are spread among 27 Pacific region offices. Their work is vital to the whole sector: illegal vessels and reckless poachers harm aquatic habitats, mess up fish counts and steal income from honest players.

In B.C., though, the challenge is forbidding geography. The province’s gargantuan coastline is a labyrinth of inlets, islands and coves that plays to the strengths of operators like Steer. He knows them intimately, and has mastered fishing for many of the species that inhabit them. (Most commercial fishermen stick to the one or two they’re licensed to catch.) What’s more, every time officers catch him, he tries new ways to evade them. So the DFO has stepped up its game, spending more time tracking Steer’s movements, dedicating resources reserved for the best-known rogues.

***

On an April day in 2016, two officers followed Steer from his home in Nanaimo to the woods near a dock on nearby Gabriola Island, then watched him paddle a yellow kayak to a fishing boat that lay at anchor. He steered the vessel, the Holly V, over to the wharf, where a man they knew as a regular partner in Steer’s fishing schemes waited. Officers swept in and, after a short chase, boarded the Holly V. Despite his associate’s claim that nobody else was on board, they found Steer crouched in a crawlspace below the bow.

It was a glaring breach of his fishing ban. In court, though, Steer spun a winding yarn about how he was merely helping his friend pilot the boat through a tricky set of narrows, and planned to kayak back to the dock immediately afterward. He was too busy, he said, to notice the hydraulic trap hauler on board, or the crab-measuring calipers, or the boxes of sardines marked “crab bait.” At sentencing, he told Justice Neena Sharma of the B.C. Supreme Court that he wanted to do something else with his life, and had enrolled in flight school.

It was vintage Steer, who has long countered charges against him with excuses, evasions and promises. Sharma was buying none of it. She dismissed Steer’s explanation for the Holly V incident as “not only implausible but inconceivable,” and handed him a 45-day jail sentence. She also had some advice: “You are 38. You do not want to find yourself in your 40s and 50s going in and out of jail. What will your kids do?”

While Steer’s far-fetched stories and lavish promises have not always worked on judges, he sometimes gets what he wants from wholesalers, or fellow fishermen. His old colleague Keitsch, who had long warned Steer about where his dishonesty would lead, says he lent the man $8,000 a few years ago. Admitting a soft spot for the guy he’d known for decades, Keitsch says he’s given up hoping of repayment, which was supposed to arrive within days.

If Steer has a nemesis, it is Shaun Tadei, a senior DFO officer based in Nanaimo, where Steer lived until recently. Tadei is unsparing in his assessment of the man he’s spent years investigating: “He’s the worst poacher that we know of on the West Coast.” But he’s as incredulous as everyone else at Steer’s audacity, and his talent for persuasion. How, he wonders, has Steer avoided the kind of rough justice aggrieved fishermen have been known to mete out? “We don’t understand how this person has been able to operate, and rip off people for so long, without someone doing him serious harm,” says Tadei. “He’s literally ruining people’s lives.”

‘He’s the worst poacher that we know of on the West Coast,’ says Shaun Tadei, a Fisheries officer who’s been pursuing Steer for years

Tadei helped with investigations into Steer through the 2010s. Then, in early 2020, the higher-ups at the DFO assigned Tadei’s four-person team to probe Steer’s business activities and finances. It’s the kind of project that police departments give to major investigations units. In this case, the work fell to Tadei and his fellow general-duty officers in Nanaimo—an assignment that has become almost a full-time job for him.

Following Steer’s money offered the chance to answer some longstanding questions. Over the years, Steer had done a lot of fishing—some legitimate, some illegal—but Tadei’s team had little sense of how lucrative the illegal side of his activities had been. Nor did they know what he had done with his illicit proceeds. After his bust on the Pacific Titan, the DFO looked into his personal finances and found fewer than $100,000 in assets and more than half a million dollars in liabilities. Steer has not splurged on fancy houses or swanky cars. His social media presence shows a family man with five kids (a sixth was due in April) and a penchant for griping about the government. Tadei and his team began pulling bank records and picking up other breadcrumbs: “We’re reaching out to people we know that he has ripped off, stolen money from, just never paid.”

Then, in a brazen move even for him, Steer went on his March 2020 night-fishing misadventure in Vancouver Harbour. His arrest kicked Tadei’s investigation into high gear, and the cellphone Steer flung overboard proved a key piece of evidence. Divers recovered it from the harbour floor, with Steer’s credit card and driver’s licence stored in the phone case.

With Steer’s cell number, Tadei’s team was able to get a production order allowing them to view Steer’s contacts and communications over the phone. Fourteen months later, Steer was charged in a 2019 scheme involving the illegal harvest of sea cucumbers, bottom-dwelling invertebrates used in traditional Chinese medicine. The raft of charges in that case included something new for Steer: immigration offences. He had allegedly hired Mexican nationals who lacked work permits. (Those counts are still before the courts.)

Last year, Steer was convicted on all charges for trapping crab in Vancouver Harbour. On top of yet another six-month jail sentence, and the forfeiture of his fishing partner’s $50,000 boat, a judge gave him the harshest penalty handed to a West Coast fisherman in more than a decade: a lifetime fishing ban. Steer also received a five-year prohibition from involvement in the sale, purchasing or brokering of fish. Tadei had discovered that Steer was trying to make money off other people’s catches.

 

***

While Steer was under house arrest with his wife and kids on Gabriola Island last summer, convicted for crabbing but awaiting his sentence, federal Fisheries officers helped launch a new front in the fight to get him out of the illicit market in seafood. One evening, a process server dropped off a provincial civil forfeiture claim, brimming with the DFO’s investigative work. It targeted $1.3 million sitting in bank accounts, as well as the house to which Steer was largely confined—a four-bedroom, timber-framed home with vaulted ceilings, sundecks and ample yard space for trucks or boat trailers. The forfeiture revealed the many tentacles of Steer’s operation, most of which he set up after the DFO’s earlier look at his finances. Six companies were listed as co-defendants, and the money was spread among 25
accounts at four different banks.

The forfeiture files also reveal that Steer has brought another family member into this murky world: his wife, Melissa, a former hairdresser who had recently started working in her husband’s trade. In 2019, she began to launch seafood brokering companies; her business partner was one of Steer’s crew mates when he got caught in Vancouver Harbour. The civil forfeiture claim alleges that her companies were dealing seafood without licences, and that her husband would be the one making the sales for her company. (Reached by text message, Melissa Steer declined to comment or facilitate an interview with her husband while the forfeiture case remains before the courts.)

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To get a sense of how lucrative Steer’s dealings were, Tadei and his team focused on one wholesaler to whom the Steers’ companies sold crab—$309,735 worth in a four-month span last year, according to court filings. In some cases, the documents say, the wholesaler, Shin Grand Food Trading Ltd., did not receive slips required to confirm the crabs were legally caught; in others, it got incomplete ones. A few times, the documents allege, Steer asked Shin Grand’s owner, Bingxin Hou, to fill out the slips himself. “I didn’t know this guy’s background” says Hou in an interview. “He just seemed like a normal fisherman to me.” Hou, who is not facing charges over the transactions, also claims Steer owes him for a $40,000 loan he never repaid.

While the bank accounts remain frozen, the provincial forfeiture office has dropped its attempt to seize the house Steer and his family live in, which his mother-in-law owns. (Investigators initially alleged she was an “owner of convenience” of a house funded by illegal fishery proceeds, but the province abandoned that claim.) And there aren’t any boats to pursue, because over the years Steer has been ordered by the courts to forfeit several, and is barred from owning any more. As of March, the Steers had not yet filed a defence against the other claims.

Steer’s release from jail for the Vancouver Harbour incident came late this past winter, several weeks before his wife was due to give birth. He still faces charges in the sea cucumber case, and others for alleged breaches of his conditions. The DFO, meanwhile, is not taking chances. Senior officers sent out an internal bulletin warning that he had been released, reminding staff of his history and pattern of offences. Perhaps the bans, imprisonment and forfeiture will finally deter him. But the experience of Fisheries officers up and down the coast suggests otherwise. They’re as keen as ever to reel him in again.


This article appears in print in the May 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.





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