Members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation who fish lobster in St. Marys Bay off Nova Scotia under food, social and ceremonial (FSC) tags say they're concerned after pulling up traps this week containing lobsters with holes punched in their tails.
Fishery officers have been punching small circular holes in lobsters as part of a new compliance initiative to track the lobster that Fisheries and Oceans Canada says "will aid in protecting the integrity of the FSC fishery."
It's illegal to sell lobster harvested under FSC tags.
While DFO maintains that punching holes in the lobsters' tails doesn't harm them, Shy Francis and Shannon Oliver-Sack said they've witnessed otherwise.
"They said that they're not doing any damage to these lobsters, but as soon as we pulled them up, it wasn't long before they started dying on the boat and they were bleeding out," Oliver-Sack, who posted a video from the water Tuesday, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Wednesday.
Oliver-Sack said she was worried some of the lobsters wouldn't be alive by the time she brought the catch back to her community, which is three hours away, so she decided to cook and bag the catch before taking it home.
"I feel like they're hindering our treaty rights," she said.
'This mark is not considered to be harmful,' says DFO
DFO declined to do an interview with CBC News, but the department said in a statement that fishery officers are making a mark on lobster fished for FSC purposes in order to simplify their inspections.
"The identifying FSC mark will be a circular hole on the left flipper closest to the centre fin. This mark is not considered to be harmful and is similar to V-notching, another fishery management measure that has been in use for many years," the department said in an email.
V-notching is when a small piece in the shape of a V is removed from the tail flap of a breeding female lobster so they're not harvested.
Oliver-Sack and Francis said they found egg-carrying — or seeded — female lobsters that had been punched with holes and put back in their traps.
"When you V-notch a female, she goes back into the water and has that time to heal. She's not brought up, put back in the water, in and out," Oliver-Sack said.
DFO is contradicting itself, says fisher
DFO said it has engaged with Mi'kmaw communities that are harvesting for FSC purposes to explain what it's doing.
But Oliver-Sack said she only learned about the new initiative when Sipekne'katik fishers started hauling up traps earlier this week.
Francis said she's "angry, frustrated" and concerned for the health of the lobsters. Like Oliver-Sack, she said she found lobsters in her traps, including females, males and smaller lobsters, that had all been hole-punched.
"They say that they're here for conservation. That ain't conservation, they're killing them," Francis said. "They're contradicting themselves."
Sipekne'katik First Nation has said it's using 1,000 FSC tags right now, which amounts to three traps per community member who is an active fisher.
Oliver-Sack fishes with her family and said they follow all the rules — but it never seems to be enough for DFO.
"We're doing everything that they ask us to do. They just keep adding to it," she said.
Commercial harvesters have long said they're worried some of Sipekne'katik's FSC catch is being sold.
Colin Sproul, president of the Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance, told Mainstreet on Thursday that more enforcement from DFO is a good thing and ensures that FSC lobster ends up with Mi'kmaw communities.
"It's being done out of a position of care and concern by the department and not one of harassment, I would like to think," he said.
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