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Nova Scotia lobster fishing season opens amid tensions between Indigenous leaders and Ottawa

November 27, 2023
Jesse James Paul, a deckhand on the Treaty Defender and member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, prepares rope in anticipation of Dumping Day in the Digby Harbour in Digby, N.S., on Nov. 23.MEAGAN HANCOCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail: As thousands of fishermen took to the sea in southwestern Nova Scotia for the beginning of the most lucrative lobster fishing season in the region, Mi’kmaq leaders are decrying the federal government’s decision to maintain limits on their access to the fishery in what they say is a violation of their treaty rights.

Ahead of Dumping Day, a weather-dependent day at the end of November when fishermen dump their traps in the ocean on the first day of lobster season, federal Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier announced interim authorizations for four local Mi’kmaq communities to fish using 5,250 lobster traps, the same as the past two years, during the federally regulated commercial season.

That is less than the 7,500 that the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs had requested – 100 traps each for 75 harvesters. The organization issued a news release Friday that condemned the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for ignoring that number and said they would still issue that number of tags.

“This news is frustrating for the communities, as we have made several attempts to demonstrate the insufficiency of the current trap allocation,” said Chief Gerald Toney of the Annapolis Valley First Nation.

“DFO is not working nation-to-nation.”

Mi’kmaq leaders had been pressing the federal government to increase the trap allocations, arguing that the limits in previous years were far below what they would need to sustain what the courts have affirmed is their right to a moderate livelihood.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs says its communities have allotted what amounts to less than 1 per cent of all licences in the region. Their calls for more access to the commercial lobster fishery come amid increasing conflict in recent years between Mi’kmaq and non-Indigenous fisherman off the East Coast.

Dumping Day took place in lobster fishing area 33, from Halifax to Shelburne on Sunday, a day earlier than expected owing to the weather, while the start of the season was delayed for the same reason in lobster fishing area 34, which stretches from Shelburne to Digby County. The two areas are the richest lobster fishing grounds in the Atlantic region, where fishermen landed 22-million kilograms of lobster worth more than $409.5-million last season.

In a statement to The Globe and Mail, DFO spokesperson Lauren Sankey defended the decision not to increase the number of traps in Mi’kmaq communities, saying it takes a “precautionary approach” to support the conservation of the healthy lobster stock through a regulated licensing regime and established commercial seasons.

DFO said it’s committed to moderate livelihood fisheries but without “increasing overall effort,” instead preferring to obtain access when the commercial industry relinquishes its licences voluntarily – a process led by DFO in exchange for compensation. So far, two commercial lobster licences have been bought out in lobster fishing areas 33 and 34.

Ernie Howe, captain of the Treaty Defender and member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, prepares ropes on his boat in anticipation of Dumping Day in the Digby Harbour in Digby, N.S., on Nov. 23.MEAGAN HANCOCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ms. Lebouthillier declined an interview request but said in a Nov. 20 statement announcing the interim authorizations that reconciliation, including upholding treaty rights, is a “key priority” for the government.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs wrote in a recent update posted to the group’s website that between October, 2022, and July, 2023, Mi’kmaq harvesters caught less than 88,000 kilograms of lobster – eight times less than expected for the number of authorized traps.

Conflict over lobster fishing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen has been stacking up for years, following the 1999 Supreme Court of Canada Marshall decision, which affirmed the Mi’kmaq treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood. The decision also gave the minister discretion to manage fish stocks.

In 2020, a lobster war erupted in southwestern Nova Scotia following the launch of a non-DFO-sanctioned treaty fishery by Sipekne’katik First Nation, a conflict reminiscent of the Burnt Church crisis from 1999 to 2002.

This past summer tensions boiled over again as Sipekne’katik members launched lobster fisheries in St. Marys Bay, outside the regulated season under their rights to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes and to earn a moderate livelihood.

Police responded to six criminal complaints related to lobster fishing from July to September, said RCMP spokesman Corporal Chris Marshall. One person was charged with assault with a weapon, three were charged with theft, and one was charged with unauthorized possession of a prohibited weapon, in relation to these incidents.

DFO said its officers have seized 1,220 traps and three vessels, and returned 10,669 lobsters to the ocean, since the previous commercial seasons wrapped up in lobster fishing areas 33 and 34. Fisheries officers arrested 15 people, who are now currently under investigation for potential charges for infractions of the Fisheries Act and regulations.

Some of the seizures over the summer have spurred a lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

Sipekne’katik First Nation and two of its members launched the suit against DFO and the Canadian Coast Guard in July. The statement of claim says the plaintiffs have a right to fish for lobster, citing the landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision. The lawsuit argues that the seizure of traps breaches their First Nation’s right to maintain, manage and regulate their own fisheries within their territory as per the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act.

The lawsuit claims damages for pain and suffering, inconvenience and loss of amenities, loss of income, expenses for the 65 traps and gear that were confiscated, interest on damages and court costs.

Fishing boats in the Digby Harbour in Digby, N.S., on Nov. 23.MEAGAN HANCOCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Sipekne’katik First Nation, which is not a member of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, did not return requests for comment.

The federal government has not filed a statement of defence.

Despite the seizures this summer, Colin Sproul, president of the United Fishery Conservation Alliance and the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said there has been little to no enforcement from DFO as “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of pounds of lobster” were fished out of season this summer. “Being abandoned by enforcement and regulators on all fronts is leading to a lot of bad feelings about what the season is going to mean,” he said.

One of the biggest employers in the region, Riverside Lobster, recently closed, owing to a lack of product to process at the facility. “We’ve seen declining landings inside St. Marys Bay compared to outside the bay so it’s really ominous for the future of the fishery in St. Marys Bay,” he added.

DFO wrote in its statement that it has allocated significant enforcement resources in St. Marys Bay and urged people to focus on safety and patience during this tense period. Cpl. Marshall said the RCMP continues to monitor the situation in the southwestern part of the province.

Lindsay Jones, Follow Lindsay Jones on Twitter: @LindsayLeeJones