News / Halifax

Non-Aboriginal fishermen protest Indigenous lobster fishery in Nova Scotia

Fishing boats loaded with lobster traps head from Eastern Passage, N.S. on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as the lobster season in southwestern Nova Scotia gets underway. There is growing tension between lobster fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia over the Indigenous ceremonial and food fisheries. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Fishing boats loaded with lobster traps head from Eastern Passage, N.S. on Tuesday, November 27, 2012 as the lobster season in southwestern Nova Scotia gets underway. There is growing tension between lobster fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia over the Indigenous ceremonial and food fisheries. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — Tension is growing between lobster fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia over the Indigenous ceremonial and food fisheries.

As a series of peaceful protests got underway Thursday, the president of the Coldwater Lobster Association said some Indigenous fishermen are taking unfair advantage of their right to continue fishing outside of the regular commercial season, which ended May 31.

"There's large volumes of lobster being landed (and sold), and they're using the food and ceremonial fishery as a cloaking device to get away with it," Bernie Berry said in an interview from Yarmouth, N.S. "The bottom line is that it is not allowed."

In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark ruling — the Sparrow decision — that found Indigenous Peoples have the right to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes. The court also found that right takes priority over other uses for the resource, but conservation must be considered.

However, federal regulations clearly state that commercial sales from these fisheries are prohibited.

Berry stressed that non-Indigenous fisherman support the food, social and ceremonial fisheries, but he insisted the federal Fisheries Department must put a stop to what he described as a rapidly growing black market.

"Unfortunately, there's some people taking advantage of it," he said. "They're creating a commercial fishery."

Michael Sack, chief of the 2,500-member Sipekne'katik First Nation, said he wasn't aware of any band members harvesting and selling lobster out of season.

However, Sack said there could be some Mi'kmaq fishermen who are selling lobster on the side, which means they are only exercising their right to earn a moderate living from the fishery — as spelled out by the Supreme Court of Canada in its Marshall decision.

"They can fish when they want ... and sell, trade or barter," he said.

"I'd like to have it dealt with at the table as opposed to people on the wharf," he said. "I just worry about the safety of our people."

The Mi'kmaq leader alleged that some fishermen have attempted to sink Indigenous boats and cut their trap lines, but Berry said he had not heard of anything like that.

Peaceful protests were held Thursday at federal offices in Digby, Tusket and Meteghan. About 100 fishermen gathered in Digby, and about half that number at the other two locations, said David Whorley, area director for the Fisheries Department.

"I understand that commercial fishermen are concerned about their fishery," he said. "We've had good discussions with the fisheries' leadership, and at that level there's no interest in escalating conflict. On the First Nations side, there's no interest in that either."

Whorley said he couldn't comment on Berry's allegations or any specific investigation or charges, and he said the rising tensions were largely the result of misinformation fuelled by social media.

"In any industry there's going to be marginal actors, and that's why we've got our enforcement branch," he said, adding that the branch has conducted inspections and seized gear and catches. "They've been active in enforcing the rules."

With increased demand from Asia driving prices higher, lobster fishermen have enjoyed record catches and rising incomes in recent years. 

The lobster business remains the most lucrative fishery in Canada, generating more than $2 billion in export sales in 2015 — and again in 2016.

The 10,000 licensed enterprises in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces employ about 30,000 harvesters, but it's the 950 lobster licence holders in southwestern Nova Scotia who work in the most lucrative fishing grounds in the country.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the province's commercial fishing industry must respect Indigenous rights.

"If there are issues being raised by an industry, I'm sure the federal government will look into those," he said after a cabinet meeting Wednesday. "Accusations are being put forward, but the courts have ruled that there is a food fishery in this province that the aboriginal communities have a right to."

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