DFO ‘sting’ operation involving 12-year-old causes social media storm

Gander Bay family in trouble over smelting

Published on January 23, 2017

Jayden Harris, aged 12, of Harris Point was among many people on Gander Bay last week fishing for smelt. After he posted an online ad advertising smelts for sale, his father, Donnie Harris, was charged by DFO.

©Adam Randell/TC Media

GANDER BAY, N.L. - The actions taken against a Gander Bay family by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has caused a social media storm locally and around the province.

Donnie Harris, of Harris Point, says a sting operation targeted his 12-year-old son Jayden, who was selling smelts — also known as white fish.

“He loves to be at it,” Harris said of his son’s passion for smelt fishing. “Every evening when he comes home from school he’s up on the ice.”

Last year he was giving them away on the ice, with people giving him a few bucks for his efforts.

(Jayden) likes talking to the older crowd to talk about how the smelting is going and that sort of thing. Donnie Harris, Jayden's father

 “He does it mostly for the older folks who can’t get out there themselves,” said Harris. “Just because it was a kid doing this, they’d appreciate what he was doing and give him a couple of bucks.”

In total, Harris said his son sold less than $100 worth of smelts this year and put the funds towards the purchase of an ice shack.

Harris said neither he, nor his son, were aware it was illegal to sell smelts.

RELATED: It’s smelt fishing season for Gander Bay residents

So Jayden posted through online advertising sites that he had smelts available at $2 a dozen. A person named Bob Smith messaged Jayden on Jan. 18 about getting smelt.

“He was going to be in the area the next day and was looking for smelt,” said Harris. “Jayden wrote him back asking how many he wanted. Ten dozen was the response, four dozen fresh, six dozen frozen.”

So Jayden went about catching smelts.

Harris said his son had caught nearly 10 dozen and used the frozen smelts he had on hand to make up the remainder.

“He cleaned up the fish and prepared them as the man had asked.”

The next day, Harris said he noticed a strange vehicle approach; a gentleman got out and asked if he was in the right spot.

“I told him he was, and we went on to talk about smelting and about how much Jayden loves it,” said Harris.

The conversation went on for another 10 minutes or so, and because Jayden wasn't home from school, Harris went inside to fetch the smelts for the stranger.

“He had lots of time to change his mind about this,” said Harris. “To issue a warning, to wait for Jayden and tell him that this is illegal and he shouldn’t be doing this.”

But that’s not how it happened, according to Harris.

The man purchased the smelt for $20, made his departure and returned five minutes later with DFO officers.

Harris states he was read his rights and verbally charged for illegally selling smelts.

He argued that both he and his son weren’t aware that selling smelts was illegal, and that it’s not commonly known throughout the province. He was told that ignorance of the law isn’t an acceptable excuse.

Harris was just glad his son wasn’t on hand to witness the ordeal.

“Jayden would have been there himself if he weren’t in school,” said Harris, “In another 15-20 minutes he would have been there himself to hand over the smelts, which is what he likes to do.

“He likes talking to the older crowd to talk about how the smelting is going and that sort of thing.”

Harris calls it a whole lot of effort, and wasted tax dollars, for something that could have been dealt with by DFO officers just having a conversation with his son.



(Jayden) likes talking to the older crowd to talk about how the smelting is going and that sort of thing. Donnie Harris, Jayden's father

No charges yet

Lloyd Slaney, acting regional director of Conservation Protection with DFO, confirmed in an interview with TC Media on Monday afternoon that no offical charges have yet been laid.

He said the case stemmed from a complaint received from the public, as it was believed to be sales of large quantities of smelt in Gander Bay area.

“In these matters we take the information and go about conducting an investigation,” said Slaney.

“It’s important to clarify that at no time was a youth or minor under investigation in this case and to date there have been no charges.”

Beyond stating that the investigation is surrounding an adult, Slaney said he couldn’t comment any further as the matter is still under investigation.

He did point out that it’s illegal to sell, trade or barter fish without a license, and smelt (white fish) falls under those regulations.

Could have talked

“It’s pretty low of them. With everything that is going on in the communities throughout our province that they come after a 12-year-old for selling smelts,” Harris said. “My mind is still blown, I just can’t believe it.”

Harris maintains that the law prohibiting the sale of smelts in NL isn’t well known.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people since this happened, and since it broke on social media (and) other than the odd two or three, nobody knew that this was illegal.”

Harris said Jayden is upset about everything that happened.

Initially, he had thought he wouldn’t tell Jayden about the charges.

 “But after the response it received online, I decided to sit him down and tell him what was going on,” he said.

“That when we hunt and fish we abide the law, and we didn’t know you were doing anything wrong.”

Harris said the conversation, along with the online show of support, seemed to make his son feel better.

“He’s been seeing the positive support that we’ve been getting online and that seems to be lifting him up, that all these people are picking up for him.”

Harris did point out that his son was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to go smelting anymore.

“I told him he sure could, but to do the same as before, that if you see someone who wants smelts give them away.”


As of Jan. 23 the elder Harris had not received written charges for illegally selling smelts.

“But when the time comes and I got to go to court, then so be it,” he said. “I’ll fight it to the end.”

“We are not poachers, we just made an honest mistake.”

Facebook commenters appalled over smelting controversy

After the news had broke that a sting operation was set up to catch a 12-year-old smelter in Gander Bay, and that the father was being charged for illegal selling smelt, it created a social media fire storm.

One Facebook user, David Boyd, has his post telling of what happened reshared 2,320 times, with countless memes surfacing scolding the actions of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Here’s what a few responders had to say:

“Wow!! Its definately not like the ole days!! Shame on D.F.O” - Tammy Carew

“If there was more effort put into real crimes this would be a lot nicer world. Let our children be children.” - Rose Stewart Curtis

“I am infuriated to read this. An explanation (warning) to this young lad would have been in order, NOT THIS!!!! This seems to me to be entrapment of the worse kind. Wow! These officials couldn't have had much else to focus on, unbelievable. Shame on DFO!” - Debra Case Vaters

“Wow, a great way to use our resources. These officers should be reprimanded for thier actions.  
This is a perfect example of how to turn the people against the DFO.” - Victor Mitchell

“Overkill much? Shame on DFO for targeting a young boy who was showing initiative and doing something useful. A warning would have more than sufficed! - Kim Tremblett

“This young boy is innocent he was only doing what we all did has children why couldn't they just explain it to him with a warning shame on those officers” - Debbie L Allen

“A 12 year old boy decides to do a little smelt fishing, outdoors in the fresh air. Not stuck in the house becoming another cyber Zombie. But, instead, doing something constructive, healthy, and following his culture. Shame on those who see this as a crime. It really is a sad world we live in. Everything is being stripped away from us!” - Wanda Wade