Lobster fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia protested at several Department of Fisheries and Oceans offices on Thursday, demanding rules be enforced around licences that allow Indigenous communities to fish out of season for food, social and ceremonial purposes.
The department says it is illegal to sell or buy anything caught under those licences, but some non-Indigenous commercial fishermen in the area say they believe the lobsters are being sold.
"They're not eating them. We know it, we can see it. They can't eat that many," said one fisherman from Digby Neck who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
"This summer, there's been no one checking them, no surveillance from our government. There's not just four or five boats out doing their food fishing, there's 23 boats right in our little area right where we've got to try and do a commercial fishery after they've cleaned it up."
The lobster grounds off southwest Nova Scotia are some of the most lucrative in the country. The commercial season for the zones that run from Digby to Halifax ended in May and will reopen again the last Monday in November.
About 100 lobster fishermen gathered at the DFO office in Digby on Thursday. Matthew Theriault, a lobster fisherman, said he's also witnessed lobsters being caught and sold in the area.
"Our main concern is the conservation of our lobster stocks, and that's the reason why we do close for six months of the season to let the lobsters do what they need to do and reproduce," he said.
"[I'm hoping] DFO can come up with some answers for the fishermen, because that's all we're looking for is answers. Everybody's frustrated, nobody seems to know how to answer our questions, so that's what we're looking for."
DFO's top official in the area denied Thursday the department is not doing any enforcement. David Whorley, the area director for southwest Nova Scotia, said the rights-based fishery is different from commercial fishing.
He said there are no more than 100 First Nations vessels fishing under the food, social and ceremonial fishery in the area, compared to 1,600 commercial licences.
"The number of vessels involved are small and given where the stock is for lobsters, the stock has been very healthy. There are no concerns about conservation," Whorley said.
The conservation and protection sector of DFO has received complaints and are responding accordingly, he said.
"There have been seizures of gear, seizures of catch this year and investigations are ongoing."
Whorley also said each community has different regulations for how much can be fished at a time.
"I think that part of this is driven by misperceptions and some of it fuelled by social media, which has accelerated, I think, some of that misinformation," he said.
"I hope one of the things that comes out of today's events, through discussions at the various DFO facilities and people that are there on site, is that we can get some better information out."
First Nations people can also apply for a commercial communal fishing licence. This licence, Whorley said, adheres to the same season opening and closing dates as the regular commercial fishery. The fish caught can be sold for profit.
Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne'katik First Nation said he's seen no evidence of any laws being brokern.
"If our people are going to fish and exercise their right to a moderate livelihood, I support that 100 per cent," he said. "I'm not even sure people are selling them. That's just speculation brought about by the local fishermen in the area."
Sack said he hopes the issue will be resolved quickly and that non-Indigenous fishermen will educate themselves.
"I'm very proud of our people. They've been taking the high road," he said. "They're just trying to fish, that's all they're trying to do."With files from Paul Palmeter and Maritime Noon