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Judge certifies class-action halibut lawsuit

VANCOUVER - More than 400 commercial fishermen in British Columbia have been given the go-ahead to sue the federal government as part of a class-action lawsuit sparked by a halibut-management strategy.

B.C. Supreme Court Judge Susan Griffin certified what she called a "novel" lawsuit, which was launched against Fisheries and Oceans Canada by fisherman Barry Burnell.

"To my knowledge to date there has been no authority awarding a fisher damages or restitution of fees paid by the fisher under one of these fisheries management schemes," Griffin said in her written ruling, posted online Wednesday.

Her written ruling states that under the program, the Fisheries Department allegedly held back 10 per cent of the total allowable catch and assigned it to the Pacific Halibut Management Society. The society then resold shares to fishermen at higher costs and used the money to fund fisheries management activities.

The ruling said the strategy began in 2001 but was discontinued in 2006 after the Federal Court found a similar practice on the East Coast was illegal.

None of the allegations have been proven in court, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada declined to comment on the certification because the case is still before the courts.

Meldon Ellis, one of the lawyers representing Burnell, said he had not yet spoken to his client about the ruling.

"We're seeking a return of the additional funds that were paid by the fishers during that period," he said, adding it's hard to estimate an average cost because each fisherman had a different quota.

Still, he said the additional fees probably represented a 10- to 15 per cent premium over what the fishermen would have paid had the strategy not been in place.

Ellis also estimated the amount of additional fees generated by the strategy and remitted to the Fisheries Department each year was $1 million.

The number of fishermen in the class action is based on court pleadings and affidavits, which note more than 400 people held licences similar to the one held by Burnell.

Not included in the class are licence holders who were also directors of the society, First Nations fishermen who held a different licence and the society, which also held a licence.

Ellis said no date has yet been set for a trial.

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