Commercial fishermen turn focus to alleged buyer in Mi’kmaw lobster dispute

Commercial fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia say they are taking a different approach on Monday in the dispute around the new self-regulated lobster fishery launched by Sipekne’katik First Nation.

After several days of hauling in traps belonging to the Mi’kmaw fishers, the commercial fishermen now say they are turning their attention toward those who they believe are buying Mi’kmaw-harvested lobster.

“Our strategy today is to demonstrate to the Canadian people that our fight here is not with Indigenous people and Indigenous fishers,” said Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association.

“It’s with the federal government and it’s with people from within our own community who are facilitating the buying of illegal fishery products.”

A large crowd gathered in protest Monday morning in front of an alleged buyer’s home in the community of Comeauville.

This comes after days of tension in the area that began when the self-regulated lobster fishery launched on Thursday at a wharf in nearby Saulnierville — 21 years after the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Donald Marshall Jr.

The landmark decision affirmed the Mi’kmaw right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from fishing and said the federal government had to justify any regulations it placed on the Mi’kmaw fishery.

Many commercial lobster fishermen say they consider the new Sipekne’katik fishery illegal and worry that fishing outside the mandated season will negatively impact lobster stocks.

Sipekne’katik officials have said the fishery was launched after the band was unable to find common ground with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on the definition of moderate livelihood. They argue the amount of lobster that will be harvested and sold is tiny compared to what’s caught during the commercial season.

The wharf in Saulnierville, N.S., on Monday. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack said in a statement Monday that he is focusing his efforts this week on meeting with law enforcement and federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan.

Sack said over the weekend there were reports that Mi’kmaw lobster trap lines were being cut. On Monday, he called for charges to be laid, and said cutting traps was “shameful and un-Canadian” and done “falsely in the name of conservation.”

“This is a David and Goliath situation. We have seven boats, each with a potential of 50 traps which we are monitoring and will be recording and reporting on,” Sack said in the release.

“As most Atlantic Canadians would recognize the potential catch of our moderate livelihood fleet is nominal. This exercise is focused on framing the volume for other stakeholders as we assert our constitutional right 21 years after it was agreed to.”

Sack also said in the release that there are “unconfirmed reports” from the commercial fishermen that DFO gave them permission to cut the traps.

Sproul said Monday that commercial fishing groups last spoke with Jordan at noon on Sunday and that they received no guidance from DFO about traps. On Sunday, he said commercial fishermen were focused on hauling them up, dumping the lobster back in the ocean and storing the traps.

CBC News reached out to the minister on Monday morning but has not yet received a response.

‘We must have dialogue’

Sproul said despite being called criminals on social media, fishermen who on Sunday hauled in traps did so “under the watchful eye” of RCMP, the Canadian Coast Guard and DFO helicopters and vessels.

“And they took no enforcement action against us. And the reason is because our actions were within the law,” he said.

But Sproul said the fishermen are eager to de-escalate the situation in southwestern Nova Scotia.

“What you can expect to see from us is a continued outreach to the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia. We must have dialogue,” he said in an interview.

“I would call on Indigenous leadership to sit down at the table with us. Ultimately Canadians should always talk their problems out.”

RCMP officers stand on the Saulnierville wharf in front of supporters of a Mi’kmaw fishery on Sunday. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

In an email statement on Monday, Premier Stephen McNeil said the province recognizes and supports “the legal, constitutional Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq.”

He said the details surrounding the nature and extent of those rights are not clear, but that clarification is best addressed through open and respectful dialogue.

“Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq are working as a nation to determine what is required to implement those treaty rights, what it means, what it looks like and what rules should be put in place,” McNeil said in the statement.

“It’s good that the federal fisheries minister continues to speak with interested parties regarding this latest fishing dispute in southwest Nova Scotia. It is essential to find a path forward and that can only happen if all sides come together in a respectful and constructive way.”

‘Threatening the lives of our people’

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs said they met with Minister Jordan and Minister Carolyn Bennett, Crown-Indigenous Relations, on Monday morning.

In a news release, the assembly said they have called on the ministers “to publicly speak out against the racism and violence directed towards Mi’kmaq community members.”

They are also calling for more enforcement, the return of the seized traps and for the ministers to make clear to the public that “moderate livelihood is not an illegal fishery.”

“Non-Indigenous fishers and citizens are putting the safety of our people at risk,” Chief Terrance Paul of the assembly said in the release.

“DFO and the RCMP must address the harassment and illegal activities taken against our people and they must enforce and charge those who to are cutting and stealing our traps, shooting flares at our boats, and threatening the lives of our people.”

The Maritime Fishermen’s Union said Sunday afternoon that commercial fishers had pulled Mi’kmaw traps from the water due to federal inaction. (CBC)

Sack said in a release on Sunday morning that he met with Jordan late Saturday to discuss a way forward.

Jordan and Sack say they have asked their senior staff to begin discussions on management of the Sipekne’katik moderate livelihood fishery.

Sack said Monday the fleet managed to salvage some of the traps that were abandoned when the lines were cut, but he is calling for donations of traps to replace the gear.

Sack also said an “operations post” will be established this week and that safety measures will be put in place to ensure that supporters, vessels and equipment are safe as high winds from Hurricane Teddy are expected on Tuesday.