Mi’kmaq lobster fishery in Nova Scotia grows to 10 boats from seven

SAULNIERVILLE — An Indigenous-run lobster fishery off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia is slightly increasing the size of its fleet to 10 boats from seven, creating a total capacity of 500 traps.

Rhonda Knockwood, the director of operations for Sipekne’katik First Nation, says the community’s fishery in St. Marys Bay continued through the weekend and on Monday, with five boats fishing, two being repaired and three more licensed by the band.

When the fishery began on Sept. 17, there were seven vessels with 50 traps each, for a total of 350 traps.

The Mi’kmaq harvesters point to a 1999 Supreme Court decision that affirms their treaty right to fish for a “moderate livelihood,” though the second part of the decision allows Ottawa to set regulations in consultation with Indigenous communities and for the purpose of conservation.

The Sipekne’katik fishery still represents a small fraction of the commercial lobster licences issued in the fishing area around St. Marys Bay.

The federal Fisheries Department’s website indicates that as of December 2018, there were 979 licences to fish the area, with most permitting 375 to 400 traps per licence _ meaning two large commercial boats would take as much as the entire current Mi’kmaq fishery.

Non-Indigenous fishing groups have resisted the fishery, arguing it shouldn’t occur outside of the regulated season. A fleet of their vessels removed 350 Mi’kmaq lobster traps from the water on the weekend of Sept. 19-20.

Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, has said lobster-fishing season in St. Marys Bay doesn’t start until the last Monday of November in order to let the animals reproduce and to make sure their stocks aren’t depleted.

Sproul could not be reached for further comment on Monday.

Last week, Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said in a news release that the next challenge for his community is to alter provincial laws that are making it difficult for the Indigenous harvesters to sell their catch.

He has called for a meeting with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil to discuss how to better define what constitutes a “moderate livelihood fishery.”

Sack said he recognizes it is currently illegal under provincial law for people to purchase lobster caught outside the commercial fishing licence system, which is operated by the federal Fisheries Department.

The First Nation leader has called on the premier, who is also the provincial minister of Aboriginal Affairs, to “remedy the legislated gaps.” A spokesman for the premier said he was unavailable for comment on Monday.

The provincial Fisheries Department has said it is up to Ottawa and the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia to work out what constitutes a moderate livelihood fishery, as the province relies on the federal regulations to define what can be legally bought and sold.

“We encourage the federal government and Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia to continue this important dialogue,” the department said in an emailed statement.

Cheryl Maloney, consultation director for Sipekne’katik First Nation, said in an email that the new boats being brought into the St. Marys Bay fishery are financed by the harvesters.

“They have to fund their own fisheries. So as their boats and crews meet safety and insurance requirements, they can access (band licence) tags,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Knockwood said the confrontational actions of non-Indigenous harvesters on the waters off St. Marys Bay have ceased. “They’re not in the bay and they’re not pulling up our traps,” she said.

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