Federal fisheries minister concerned about size of Mi'kmaq fishery in Cape Breton bay

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HALIFAX — The federal fisheries minister is raising concerns about the health of the lobster stock in Cape Breton in connection with an Indigenous self-regulated fishery underway in St. Peters Bay.

Bernadette Jordan said Friday that while the government recognizes the Mi'kmaq treaty right to fish, the scale of the lobster harvest in the bay is exceeding proposals made by Indigenous fishers. 

"While lobster stocks are generally healthy, monitoring has recently indicated that fishing activities have significantly increased in St. Peters Bay," the minister said in a statement. 

"The scale and operation of current activities is even in excess of First Nation moderate livelihood fishing proposals. When there is a high concentration of traps in a particular area, it raises concerns regarding localized impacts to the stock."

The Mi'kmaq fishery being operated in the bay, 90 kilometres south of Sydney, has been peaceful in comparison to the violence that erupted in response to the St. Marys Bay fishery operated by the Sipekne'katik First Nation.

Indigenous fishers have justified their fall harvests on a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that affirmed the Mi'kmaq treaty right to fish for a "moderate livelihood'' when and where they want. That decision was later clarified by the court, however, whose members said the federal government could regulate the Mi'kmaq treaty right for conservation and other limited purposes.

Wilbert Marshall, the chief of Potlotek First Nation, said in an interview Friday his community has seven boats fishing in St. Peters Bay and he doesn't believe they are causing conservation issues.

He said he has concerns, however, about the activities of the neighbouring Eskasoni First Nation, and said he is urging the chief of this larger community to ensure its fishers are not taking excessive catches.

"It's not Potlotek," Marshall said. "We're following the plan exactly. I'm trying to get a hold of the chief of Eskasoni right now ... They have too many traps out there."

Ashton Bernard, a fisher from Eskasoni First Nation who is working on the bay, said in an interview Friday he didn't believe the lobster stock is being threatened. "The fishing is great right there in St. Peters," he said. "There's been no decline there at all. It's unbelievable right now."

Bernard said there has been one recent instance where Fisheries Department officers seized some of his gear, but otherwise, he said, there haven't been many enforcement actions in the area.

The Mi'kmaq fisher said if Minister Jordan wishes to close down the fishery, she should stop non-Indigenous fishers from harvesting lobster in the area as well. 

Jordan said if officers determine an activity is not sustainable, they "have a responsibility to act in order to preserve Canada's coastal areas and resources." 

"If fishery officers are concerned about excessive fishing negatively impacting long-term sustainability of lobster, they will need to take action, whoever is doing the fishing," the minister said.

"Let officers do their jobs. We do not want to escalate tensions, but rather to ensure that all fishing is conducted in a safe, orderly, and sustainable manner."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2020.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press