The Department of Fisheries and Oceans moved Tuesday to reassure commercial lobster fishermen "there is no plan" to cut their catches to implement a Mi'kmaw treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing.
The issue has swirled through Maritime coastal fishing communities since the federal government relaunched a voluntary commercial licence buy-back program last year to make room for more Mi'kmaw access — so far without success.
The departmental statement followed a response from Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray to Conservative fisheries critic Rick Perkins during Question Period Monday.
"DFO sources tell me the minister was about to expropriate 15 per cent of lobster traps from licence holders, without compensation, to give to First Nations," Perkins said Monday. "This would be devastating for these fishermen. Will the minister state in this House, categorically, that the government will not expropriate from lobster fishermen."
Murray responded by saying the government is working to implement the Mi'kmaw's Supreme Court-affirmed treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood.
"We are doing so in consultation with any other fish harvesters who may be impacted," Murray said. "We are working very hard to have a willing buyer-willing seller process, so that those transactions can be appropriate for everyone. This decision has not been made, and I will continue working on a fair outcome for all."
After Murray's exchange, the minister's press secretary, Claire Teichman, sent a statement Tuesday morning to CBC News.
"There is no plan to remove any number of traps from lobster licence holders. DFO is committed to the willing seller-willing buyer model," Teichman said in the statement.
In the 1999 Marshall decisions, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the Mi'kmaq have a treaty right to earn a moderate living from fisheries. However, the court did not define what that meant and said governments have the right to regulate fisheries for conservation and other purposes.
The question Monday from Perkins did not come out of left field.
Earlier this year, DFO was involved in negotiations to buy back licences in the lucrative Maritime commercial baby eel fishery to increase moderate livelihood access. The tiny eels are sold to Asia where they are grown to adulthood for food.
DFO said the industry wanted too much for their licences, broke off negotiations, cut the commercial quota by 14 per cent without compensation and gave it to Mi'kmaw bands to implement moderate livelihood. The department said it was a temporary measure and will be revisited.
A similar reallocation took place in a small West Coast crab fishery.
In March, a top Mi'kmaw negotiator told a Senate committee commercial lobster access should be reduced to ensure the treaty right is realized.
"You heard from the chiefs, the buy-back program hasn't been successful. So maybe at this point, Canada and DFO have to be more aggressive in taking back access for the Mi'kmaw people and Indigenous people," Janice Maloney told the committee.
"It's time to take back some of the access from the commercial fisheries and provide it to the rights-based fishery. The commercial access is a privilege-based fishery."
Commercial fishermen's groups objected.
"It's clearly unfair and un-Canadian to repossess access to the fishery from coastal communities without any consultation or compensation," Colin Sproul of the Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance said in March.
Court case aftermath
In the aftermath of the Marshall decisions, the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to integrate Mi'kmaw bands into the commercial fishery, mostly through buying back commercial licences — a process known as one in-one out and willing buyer-willing seller.
Last year, Ottawa revived the licence buy-back program to implement moderate livelihood in the Maritimes lobster fishery without increasing fishing effort.
So far there has been very little uptake from commercial fleets.
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