Three months after launching a self-regulated lobster fishery in southwest Nova Scotia to significant opposition from the commercial fishing industry, the Sipekne'katik band has called its season to a close and is preparing to pull its boats from the water.
Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack said the last of the traps were hauled in on Dec. 15 after a season of ups and downs. Overall, he said the launch of the fishery marked a positive step toward self-governance.
"But if you talk to any of our fishers, it was a very stressful year. They all lost money, so in that regard it was horrible," Sack said in a phone interview Sunday.
Nearly 55,000 kilograms of lobster caught and sold
Over the course of the season, Sack said Sipekne'katik harvesters caught and sold close to 55,000 kilograms of lobster.
Selling their catches had been a problem for Mi'kmaw harvesters earlier in their season because provincial regulations prohibit buyers from purchasing anything caught outside a commercial fishing license.
But in the end, Sack said everything his community caught was sold — although he wouldn't say exactly where.
Sack said he left it to individual fishers to sell their catches.
"Our people have a lot of relationships down there, but nobody would openly work with us," he said. "I'm sure that lobsters went to local buyers in the area."
From the beginning of the band's moderate livelihood fishery, which began on Sept. 17 in Saulnierville, N.S., Sack said his community had to harvest earlier than commercial fishermen, in part, because Mi'kmaw vessels are poorly equipped for winter conditions.
Sack said most of his community's fleet would be pulled from the water in Saulnierville this week. One boat was already hauled out on Sunday morning after taking on water Saturday and becoming almost entirely submerged.
The boat doesn't have any obvious damage and the cause of its sinking isn't clear, but it isn't believed to be suspicious.
The commercial season in southwest Nova Scotia typically launches on the last Monday in November, although this year it was delayed in Lobster Fishing Area 34, which includes the Bay of Fundy where Sipekne'katik was fishing.
Commercial fishermen dropped their traps eight days late this year — an unusually long delay because of bad weather — meaning the two fisheries overlapped by just one week.
Other moderate livelihood fisheries closed too
Sipekne'katik was the first Mi'kmaw band in Nova Scotia to formally launch a moderate livelihood fishery, creating a management plan and issuing a limited number of licences and tags — but it wasn't the only.
Potlotek and Pictou Landing First Nations followed suit later in the fall, and they both closed their seasons on Dec. 15 too.
Those who rely on the lucrative commercial lobster fishery say the moderate livelihood fisheries put lobster stocks at risk, and have been calling on the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to enforce the rules around commercial fishing seasons on Mi'kmaw fishers.
The dispute can be traced back at least two decades, when questions of Indigenous fishing rights went to the Supreme Court of Canada and culminated in 1999's Marshall decision, which upheld the Mi'kmaw treaty right to hunt and fish for a "moderate livelihood."
An addendum from the court later that year said moderate livelihood operations could be regulated if justified by conservation concerns, but no terms were ever set. Whether any limits can or should be imposed on the Mi'kmaw lobster fisheries remains unclear and a point of contention in Nova Scotia's fishing communities.
The launch of Sipekne'katik's fishery this September — on the 21st anniversary of the Marshall decision — has faced considerable opposition.
Hundreds of Mi'kmaw traps were hauled from the water, two lobster pounds that had been holding Mi'kmaw catches were ransacked — one while two Mi'kmaw fishermen were barricaded inside — and one was later burned to the ground.
Mi'kmaw leaders in Nova Scotia were in regular conversation with DFO throughout the fall, trying to find some common terms for the moderate livelihood fisheries, but Sack recently halted those talks for his band.
He said he'll continue working with the Canadian government, but he said he's now dealing exclusively with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett and her department on the broader topic of Indigenous self-governance.
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