Joyce Murray reaffirmed the federal government has the authority to regulate M'ikmaw moderate livelihood fishing as she made her first visit to Atlantic Canada this week as the minister of fisheries and oceans.
The Vancouver MP used her time on the East Coast to meet with provincial governments, industry, Indigenous leaders and environmentalists.
Murray said Thursday her department is working "closely and collaboratively" with Mi'kmaw communities and remains dedicated to the sustainability of the fisheries.
"It is our responsibility to make sure that the fisheries are managed in a way that is sustainable in the long run, as well as respects local fishers' ability to earn a livelihood. Reconciliation is very important to us. The legal decisions are clear that moderate livelihood fisheries is an important component of the fishery," Murray told CBC News.
Supreme Court of Canada rulings in the Marshall case recognized the Mi'kmaw right to earn a moderate living from fishing subject to management by federal and provincial governments in areas of their jurisdiction.
That authority is not accepted by the Sipekne'katik band in particular, which has launched its own self-regulated lobster fishery, as has the Pictou Landing band.
It is not all conflict, however. Three bands in southwest Nova Scotia have an arrangement with DFO for an authorized moderate livelihood lobster fishery when the commercial season opens in the area later this month. The Acadia band joined Thursday.
Murray was vague when asked if moderate livelihood fishing must take place within existing commercial seasons — a position held by her predecessor, Bernadette Jordan.
"You are speaking to a minister who is three weeks into the job," Murray said. "So what I'm going to say is that we are responsible for the sustainability of the fishery and the seasonality is a key component to that."
Jordan was mocked by opponents after saying she had not read the landmark Marshall decision. Murray refused to answer directly when asked twice whether she had read it, saying only she was "aware of the key elements."
The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs said Friday no one was available to respond to the minister's remarks.
Murray also touched on the reopening of the commercial redfish fishery, which is at the centre of an interprovincial dispute over quotas.
The population of ocean perch, as it is also known, has exploded to an estimated four million tonnes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Companies in Nova Scotia and Quebec held most of the quota when the fishery was shut down in the 1990s, and both provinces want the traditional allocation restored. In Newfoundland and Labrador, a campaign is underway to award the majority of the quota to inshore fishermen from that province.
"This is a fishery that crashed and has had some rebound, and we're not going to rush into opening that fishery," said Murray.
"So we have time to make sure that we accommodate the views that we've heard, and come up with a way to reopen the fishery that will be sustainable and will be as fair as we can make it."
As well on Thursday, the minister rejected pleas from aging fishermen seeking the right to sell their Class B lobster licences, saying she has no plans to make those licences salable or inheritable.
Fish harvester benefit repayment
She also addressed an issue facing nearly 4,200 Canadian fishing boat crew members, including 2,300 in Nova Scotia, who've been told they must repay a fish harvester benefit issued as part of a COVID assistance program in 2020. DFO ruled they were salaried employees and therefore ineligible because the program was for self-employed fishermen.
"If people received something they weren't entitled to, whether it is intentionally or not intentionally, we expect that to be repaid to the taxpayers of Canada," said Murray.
This year, DFO restarted consultations to create more marine protected areas. Canada has committed to preserving 25 per cent of ocean and coastal areas by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030.
Murray would not say whether one of the most controversial candidate areas will be protected in time to meet the 2025 target.
Marine protected areas
Despite repeated assurances to the contrary from DFO, local lobster fishermen are fighting against protecting Eastern Shore Islands in Nova Scotia because they fear it would shut down their livelihood.
"I'm not going to really single out any particular marine protected area. The program is incredibly important and it's important to hear the voices of all of the stakeholders as we move forward," Murray said.
"It's a very important part of our government's international commitment, but also the recovery, the regeneration of habitat and fisheries for everyone's benefit over the long term."
Murray said her department is prepared to listen before making final decisions. She said as minister, her commitment is to the health of the fisheries.
"What Atlantic Canadians will get is a minister who is utterly committed to the regeneration and restoration and protection of stocks so that we have an abundance and diversity of opportunities for people, socially and economically, in the years to come," she said.
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