Lennox Island, DFO agree on 2023 moderate livelihood lobster fishery off P.E.I.

Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada say an interim understanding was reached with Lennox Island on Wednesday. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC - image credit)
Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada say an interim understanding was reached with Lennox Island on Wednesday. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC - image credit)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it has reached an "understanding" with Lennox Island First Nation for a treaty-protected lobster fishery off P.E.I.'s North Shore for the 2023 spring season.

In a statement to CBC News, DFO says the one-year interim understanding was reached on Wednesday. The band had said its boats would begin to set about 1,000 lobster traps on Saturday — with or without DFO approval.

"The Government of Canada is committed to advancing First Nations' Supreme Court-affirmed treaty right to fish," DFO officials said in a statement sent to CBC News on Friday.

"Designated community members are authorized to fish up to 1,000 traps total in Lobster Fishing Area (LFA) 24 during the spring 2023 commercial lobster season... This approach is being used on an interim basis for this season only."

The First Nation launched its inaugural treaty (or moderate livelihood) fishery in the 2022 spring lobster season, striking a similar one-year interim understanding with DFO days after setting traps.

The 2022 terms saw Lennox Island harvest 300 lobster traps in LFA 24 in the spring season and 700 traps in LFA 25 in the fall, but Lennox Island Chief Darlene Bernard was transparent about her community's intention to fish all 1,000 traps from its own North Shore harbour in the more lucrative spring season in 2023.

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

"Just as we did last year, our management plan voluntarily follows the current DFO regulations and DFO will not be interfering with our treaty fishery," Bernard said in a statement to CBC Friday afternoon.

"Other than that, there was no deal signed with DFO."

Unsuccessful attempt to buy licences

The Mi'kmaw right to fish for a moderate livelihood was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1999 Marshall decision, based on treaties signed between the First Nations and the Crown in the 1700s.

Since then, the Canadian government has worked to increase access for First Nations to get into the lobster fishery, typically through buying out commercial licences and re-distributing them to First Nations. That means no additional lobster is coming out of the sea, in net terms.

The P.E.I. Fisherman's Association said these buy-backs were attempted to offset Lennox Island's fishery this year, but DFO was unsuccessful, leaving the association "disappointed and frustrated."

Nicola MacLeod/CBC
Nicola MacLeod/CBC

"We've known since last year that Lennox Island First Nation would like to fish an additional 700 traps in Malpeque Bay and efforts were in place to try to purchase that access, but that hasn't happened," said Molly Aylward, the PEIFA's executive director.

"Our mandate is 'One licence in, one licence out,' and we stand behind that."

The association said DFO did solicit lobster boat captains who were potentially interested in selling a licence in LFA 24 — where Lennox Island has its own wharf — through a series of letters sent out starting in February.

"There were people that were interested in selling, but the the price was above the threshold that DFO was willing to pay," Aylward said, adding that while sales of fishing gear are private, licences on P.E.I.'s North Shore allowing a person to set about 300 traps can sell in the $1.2-million to $1.5-million range.

In January, fishers told CBC News that some licences are now selling for up to $1.8 million.

"All that we know is that the expressions of interest that came in to DFO were above the threshold," Aylward said.

The PEIFA also said the timing of the offers was late for fishers to make such a "life-changing decision".

It increases the pressure on the resource in a particular area and that's always of concern. — Molly Aylward, PEIFA executive director

The PEIFA made alternative suggestions to the department, including offering fishers the chance to sell some traps from within their licence or allowing for the leasing of licences to the First Nation.

Aylward said DFO rejected those suggestions and the PEIFA's understanding is that DFO has authorized the fishery in Lennox Island by reallocating unused licences from another fishing area.

"Lobster stocks in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence are considered healthy," DFO officials said in their statement.

"The interim understanding for this fishery falls within the available access across spring lobster fishing areas in the Gulf Region and takes into account the health of the stock ... Following the end of the fishing season, DFO will be launching another expression of interest for the voluntary relinquishment of licences in LFA 24 in July 2023."

Brian Higgins/CBC
Brian Higgins/CBC

But Aylward said DFO sanctioning the fishery without taking other traps out of the water is not an approach it supports.

"It increases the pressure on the resource in a particular area and that's always of concern to the PEIFA," Aylward said.

Lobster Fishing Area 24, along the province's North Shore, has about 190,000 traps set in total each spring, and new licences are typically not created.

Back in 2020, non-Indigenous and Indigenous fishing crews clashed over the Sipekne'katik First Nations moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia's St. Mary's Bay — eventually resulting in violence, torched vehicles and fires.

When asked whether there is potential for equal tensions in LFA 24 as Lennox Island proceeds with its fishery, Aylward said there was. But she added: "The PEIFA stands for peace on the water and safety and that's our priority."

Lennox Island's treaty fishery will align with the commercial season, which opens Saturday.

Five-year plan for Abegweit

Earlier this month, Abegweit First Nation based in the Scotchfort area of P.E.I. signed a five-year fisheries deal with DFO.

Bernard said Lennox Island tried to negotiate a similar deal but was unsuccessful.

"While the agreement had language that recognized our right, it also had language that said we could not exercise our right without the minister's permission," she said.

"As a leader, I would never sign such an agreement that would not allow our First Nation to exercise our right to self-determination."