Freshly caught lobster is a fall tradition for the Listuguj Mi'kmaq on the southern coast of Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. And this year, for the first time, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has recognized the community's right to sell some of its September and October catch.
"Everyone's excited," said Denny Isaac, associate director of fisheries for the Listuguj Mi'gmaq Government.
"[Monday was] the first harvest, the first haul of the traps. Everyone's excited 'cause...it's also the first day the community gets a feed of lobster."
In April, Listuguj signed a five-year rights reconciliation agreement with Canada's Minister of Fisheries Bernadette Jordan and in August, the two sides came to terms on a licensed fall commercial lobster fishery.
"It's a demonstration of the recognition of our rights," said Listuguj Chief Darcy Gray, "something that we've been pushing for for a number of years."
"This year we have 21 fishers that are out there fishing for a couple of weeks and it's tremendous," he said. "But are there other opportunities that might exist down the road?"
The fishery runs from Sept. 26 through Oct. 10. Isaac says the new commercial element hasn't changed Listuguj's community-first approach.
"We fish 67 traps for the community," he said. "We aim for about 500 pounds a day to bring home to be cooked."
Over the course of two weeks, Isaac says 235 total traps bring in roughly 7,000 pounds of lobster. Everything that's caught is weighed and recorded through a dockside monitoring program that helps ensure sustainable harvesting.
Isaac says a portion of each boat's daily catch goes to a community kitchen where it's cooked and handed out every evening on a first-come, first-served basis.
"We know it's a limited resource but we try to share it as equally as possible," he said.
Some lobsters are reserved for elders and others are served at community events. Isaac says Listuguj band members also have the option of signing up, at no cost, to have a fisher harvest for them directly.
"There's two different ways that community members get lobster," he said. "They can either come to the Listuguj lineup or they can ask a fisher to fish a tag for them and register that tag... [But] you can't get a tag and go to the community lineup — it's either or."
Concern over impact on lobster stocks
Not everyone in the region is happy about the new commercial harvest.
The Regroupement des pêcheurs du sud de la Gaspésie, a regional association of southern Gaspé fishermen, told CBC it's frustrated none of its members were consulted and it's worried about the impact the fall harvest will have on lobster stocks.
"Commercial fishermen who have always been at the forefront of conservation deplore DFO's decision to transform...what was previously supposed to be a small fall lobster fishery into a full-blown, unchecked commercial fishery," the association said in a statement.
"Listuguj already holds four commercial lobster licences during the normal commercial spring season as well other very lucrative fishing licences."
Isaac says the agreement for the new commercial fishery accounts for the fact that lobster are easier to catch after mating season, which runs from July to September, and locals aren't putting out any more traps than they usually would this time of year.
He says the new licence also dictates that for every day Listuguj fishermen are out on the water this fall, an average of seven days will be deducted from their spring licence during the usual commercial lobster season.
Isaac says the Listuguj fishery operates on local government funding as well as federal grants and subsidies and without commercial sales it is impossible to turn a profit.
"It costs money to run this," he said. "It's good news because individuals were selling in the past but they were being harassed. We're still feeding our people and now the guys can get a good market price and offset their expenses."
"I'd say it's a good step forward, however there's more work to do," he said."We're still negotiating with the government to discover a new way that they can recognize the full scope of our rights."
"Getting governments and fisheries and industry groups to understand the complexity of our rights but also our traditions that give us a little bit of priority and access to the resources to feed and sustain our people."