Two Nova Scotia First Nations propose first-ever moderate livelihood elver fishery

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In this March 2012 file photo, elvers are shown by a buyer in Portland, Maine.  Elvers fetched up to $2,000 a pound last season. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press - image credit)
In this March 2012 file photo, elvers are shown by a buyer in Portland, Maine. Elvers fetched up to $2,000 a pound last season. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press - image credit)

Two Nova Scotia First Nations have jointly proposed the country's first-ever plan for a moderate livelihood fishery for baby eels, known as elvers.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it is working with the Acadia First Nation and Bear River First Nation, which have posted an "exploratory interim" plan for a moderate livelihood elver fishery.

The plan would permit the harvest of up to 115 kilograms of baby eels on any of the 19 watersheds in southern Nova Scotia, with individual license holders limited to a maximum of 35 kilograms.

The tiny baby eels are flown live to Asian fish farms where they are harvested as adults. In 2019, the fishery was valued at $38 million.

The proposed plan is part of broader negotiations with Ottawa on moderate livelihood fishing in southwestern Nova Scotia, known as Kespukwitk to Mi'kmaw.

The season is effectively over this year because elvers have largely completed their migrations upstream.

Richard Cuthbertson/CBC
Richard Cuthbertson/CBC

The plan states that the the purpose is to "observe and document the upstream migration of the elvers on selected rivers in southwest Nova Scotia to identify potential locations and appropriate gear types for a future elver fishery on those rivers."

"Our district harvesters will retain a small amount of those elvers for a livelihood fishery and establish an elver index for the rivers that do not have an established elver fishery," it said.

The results will be evaluated and considered in discussions with band members and harvesters, the plan said.

Mi'kmaq have a treaty right to harvest and sell fish for the purpose of earning a moderate livelihood. The right has been recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada, which has also ruled that Ottawa has the right to regulate that fishery for conservation and other public interest purposes.

Both bands declined to comment on the plan. Bear River referred questions to the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, which issued a statement.

"The Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia have traditional and current experience with katew [eels] and we are examining how harvesting of this important species can be done today, through a lens of two-eyed seeing, to ensure the long-term sustainability of this and all species," the statement said.

Richard Cuthbertson/CBC
Richard Cuthbertson/CBC

The plan would apply to the following watersheds: Annapolis, Annis, Medway Mersey, Bear Roseway/Sable, Meteghan, Tusket, Barrington, Gold, Lahave, Chebogue, Clyde, Jordan, Salmon River, Petite River, Argyle River, Sissiboo and Martins.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans did not provide an opinion on the proposal.

"We are actually still working with those bands on their fishing plans," said Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan.

"Moderate livelihood takes in many species. It's not just lobster. Elver would be part of that. So those are all ongoing negotiations that we're having."

This spring, Jordan's department reached an understanding with the Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton, authorizing the first moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia — for lobster.

It enabled Potlotek harvesters to fish 700 lobster traps in 2021 within the commercial season in five lobster fishing areas.

Richard Cuthbertson/CBC
Richard Cuthbertson/CBC

Right now, the lucrative elver fishery is in the hands of nine commercial license holders — including one Cape Breton band — who share a total allowable catch of 9,960 kilograms, mostly in Nova Scotia.

Demands for a share of the commercial fishery by the Mi'kmaq have led to conflict in recent years, culminating in a ministerial order from Jordan that shut down the entire Maritime fishery in 2020.

Under the proposed moderate livelihood elver fishery — posted on the Acadia First Nation website — harvesters will be required to provide reports on the location and date of harvesting activity, selling activity and catches to their band council or their designate.

The plan said monitoring may be conducted through the collection of log sheets, logbooks or online applications that are provided by band councils.

The bands or a designate may work with other communities, organizations and DFO to ensure watershed quotas are maintained.

The industry association representing Maritime commercial license holders did not respond to a request for comment.

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