A university professor who studies fisheries management says the Mi'kmaw fishery in southwest Nova Scotia won't harm lobster stocks — as commercial fishermen have argued — given its small scale.
Megan Bailey is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in integrated ocean and coastal governance at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
She's worked with both Mi'kmaw and commercial fishermen while teaching courses on some of the same issues that are playing out now near Saulnierville, N.S.
"If we look at kind of what the commercial effort is normally in that area and it's hundreds of thousands of traps, the 250 traps going in right now, it's a negligible impact on the stock and I don't think it's a conservation concern at this scale," she told CBC's Information Morning on Tuesday.
Bailey supports the moderate livelihood fishery launched by Sipekne'katik First Nation last week, 21 years after the Supreme Court's Marshall decision affirmed the Mi'kmaq's right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing.
The fishery has been met with anger and opposition from commercial fishermen who protested the self-regulated fishery by hauling up traps and dumping them at the door of a local Department of Fisheries and Oceans office on Monday.
They say fishing out of DFO's season will decimate an already vulnerable lobster stock.
But Bailey disagrees.
"I recognize and I empathize with the commercial fishing sector that this seems like a conservation risk. I don't think it is. I don't think the science would support that," she said.
Sipekne'katik First Nation has so far issued seven lobster licenses to band members, with 50 tags each. Chief Michael Sack said that makes a total of 350 tags, "which is less than one commercial fishing license."
According to the DFO, there were a total of 2,979 commercial lobster licenses in lobster fishing areas (LFAs) 27-38 as of Dec. 31, 2018. There were 979 licenses alone in LFA 34, one of the most lucrative fishing areas in Canada.
Sack told CBC's Mainstreet on Monday that the band plans to issue more licenses and that the community has developed a management plan that will likely evolve over time in consultation with community members and the federal government.
The plan includes hiring guardians who are trained to oversee activities on the water, including ensuring safety and conservation regulations are followed, he said.
"There's a lot of factors we take into it to ensure that this will be preserved, this species will be there for our seven generations," Sack said.
But Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, said the licenses that Sipekne'katik issued last week don't account for all the fishing that's taking place in St. Marys Bay outside of the DFO-regulated season.
His group says lobster landings in the area have declined 68 per cent since 2016.
"Let's be clear: it's not appropriate for anybody to fish in a lobster molting breeding ground during the closed season. We have seasons for a reason," Sproul told CBC's Mainstreet on Monday.
The Mi'kmaw fishermen are out on the water at a time when lobster are molting, which means their shells become soft and they reproduce.
Sack said fishermen throw back undersized and female lobsters but Sproul insists that won't address the problem.
"There's a ton of damage that we don't account for outside of the landings, damage to smaller egg-bearing female lobsters, which are released, but when they're caught in that condition they can't be released back to the bottom without being killed," said Sproul.
However, Bailey said fishing during the breeding season isn't a big concern given the small number of lobster being hauled up at this point.
A spokesperson for DFO said lobster stocks across the Maritimes remain healthy.
"The 2015-2016 season saw record catches for both LFAs 33 and 34. The drop in catch for LFA 34 in the 2018-2019 season, while notable, does not raise into question the health of lobster stocks," Benoit Mayrand wrote in an email to CBC News, adding that the recent data is still preliminary and subject to change.
Bailey said she understands why the commercial fishing industry is worried about sustainability given their season is regulated in part to ensure a viable and healthy fishery into the future.
"We really need to work towards de-escalation and for me, I think that's the commercial fishing sector backing off and letting DFO do its job and recognizing that this is a treaty fishery, that there is a right," Bailey said. "Whether commercial fishermen are OK with it or not, it doesn't matter. It's not up to them."
Sack said when he spoke with Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan over the weekend she did not raise conservation concerns, but rather focused on the safety of fishermen as tensions on wharves and the water heat up.
It's a message Jordan, along with Minister Carolyn Bennett, reiterated in a statement late Monday.
The ministers said the federal government affirms the Marshall decision.
A rare clarification to that ruling later said the federal government has to justify any regulations for the purposes of conservation that it placed on the Mi'kmaw fishery.
"Reconciliation is a Canadian imperative and we all have a role to play in it. What is occurring does not advance this goal, nor does it support the implementation of First Nation Treaty rights, or a productive and orderly fishery," the ministers said.
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