A fishing tournament organizer and TV personality has brought his business to New Brunswick after being fined $9,000 and losing his Ontario fishing licence for not reporting the nearly 200 dead bass he threw into a dumpster.
Ben Woo was convicted of failing to abide by the terms and conditions of the licence allowing tournament organizers to transport fish to be weighed and measured before they were returned live to the water.
After the incident, Woo relocated to southern New Brunswick, where he’s continued to organize fishing tournaments under the name B1 Fishing, including two in partnership with the City of Fredericton.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, 195 dead bass were found after Woo’s tournament on the St. Lawrence River near Gananoque on July 15, 2019. Of that number, 188 were in plastic bags at the bottom of a dumpster.
It’s one of the largest fines handed out, and one of the most serious violations the department has recorded.
“This was by far the most heinous one I’ve ever seen,” said Greg Bourne, a staff sergeant who has been with the Ontario ministry for 21 years.
Bourne said anglers called in the tip about the fish-dumping on the opening day of the two-day weekend tournament.
“People who were at the tournament called our communication centre and complained that there seemed to be a lot fish dying at this bass tournament,” said Bourne.
Bourne said someone was dispatched on the second day of the tournament to check it out but was reassigned to another call. An officer didn’t make it to the marina where the fish were being kept until the day after the tournament ended.
But anglers also contacted Bruce Tufts, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., head of the Freshwater Fisheries Conservation Lab, and the biologist who helped craft Ontario’s guidelines for handling fish during tournaments.
They sent him photos of the fish — some already dead — in the tank where they were kept after being measured and weighed.
Tufts said the pictures bothered him so much he barely slept that night.
“I called my lab manager at 6 o’clock in the morning and said ‘This is really bugging me, there’s got to be a ton of dead fish down there,'”
Tufts, along with some of his students and another angler, got permission from the marina owner to search the area for what they suspected would be a large number of dead bass. They were later joined by a conservation officer from the Ministry of Natural Resources.
“We started finding dead fish in the bushes,” said Tufts. “We found a few dead fish in the water.”
Tufts said a marina employee pointed them to a dumpster.
“In the bottom, there were 17 bags of smallmouth bass that were the biggest, best, broodstock in our fishery,” said Tufts.
According to both Tufts and Bourne, the fish died as a result of lack of oxygen and inadequate water temperatures in the holding tank where they’d been placed after being weighed.
The Ontario ministry requires that if more than five per cent of the fish caught during the tournament die while in the possession of the event, the government must be immediately contacted.
“We believe the organizer was negligent in the way he handled the fish, and that’s what resulted in the deaths of so many,” said Bourne.
Tufts said the fish were double-bagged, and other garbage had been piled on top.
Woo originally faced 11 charges, including giving a false statement to a conservation officer, but in the end pleaded guilty to one: failing to abide by the terms and conditions of a licence.
Move to New Brunswick
Woo and his family moved to Tracyville, about 28 kilometres south of Fredericton, last year.
The former Montreal resident is prohibited from holding a fishing licence in Ontario, but that does not bar him from fishing in other provinces.
He said his move to New Brunswick was for personal reasons and not an effort to circumvent the Ontario penalty. In the wake of his conviction, he said, he’s no longer hosting fishing tournaments.
“Absolutely 100 per cent done with that,” Woo said this week. “And to be very transparent that not only due to this, but it’s also due to COVID.”
But Woo and B1 Fishing did host tournaments this past summer and he was scheduled to host an event in Fredericton as recently as October. That event was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Until his recent conviction, Woo had also been partnering with the City of Fredericton on tournaments.
The City of Fredericton hosted two B1 Fishing tournaments in 2019. Both took place after the Gananoque tournament, but the city said it worked with the Department of Natural Resources to ensure proper fish handling.
“However, we will not be working with Mr. Woo on future tournaments,” wrote Bobby Despres, Fredericton sport tourism co-ordinator. “Protecting our natural environment is the city’s top concern and we want to work with organizers who are fully committed to this principle.”
Woo also has a working relationship with the New Brunswick Department of Tourism. The fishing show he hosts, Fish East, is set to premiere this month on the Wild Television Network and the website states: “Woo sets out to explore the East Coast through a nine-episode series filmed exclusively in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.”
The government of New Brunswick is listed as a partner with the production.
Woo denies hiding fish
Woo claims the only thing he did wrong was to not immediately contact the Ontario government after more than five per cent of the fish caught died on the first day of the tournament. He said he filed a report with the ministry on the Tuesday following the tournament, then resubmitted a more detailed report the following Friday.
He said his only option was to throw the fish in the garbage.
“What would be the other option, take them off-site? I’m not sure where we would have put them,” said Woo. “Or do we go and announce to everybody ‘Hey, we have 200 dead fish here, what do we do?’ I’m not sure that would have been the politically correct thing to do. There’s no precedent here.”
“We panicked,” Woo wrote on the B1 Fishing Facebook page when explaining why fish were thrown in the garbage. He denies trying to hide them. Woo thinks whatever killed the fish is still uncertain.
Water quality blamed
“This was an anomaly,” said Woo. “It never happened before; it’s never happened since.”
Woo points the finger at the venue, the river water quality, as one of the factors in what happened to the fish.
“But certainly, there was no negligence on our side of things as far as the procedure or the fish handling is concerned,” said Woo.
Woo said he takes full responsibility and regrets what happened.