N.B. First Nation seeking access to fishery has international implications

Fishing rights are one of the big prizes for the tiny Passamaquoddy First Nation in southern New Brunswick as it negotiates status recognition with the government of Canada.

Passamaquoddy homeland straddles U.S.-Canada border

Fishing rights are one of the big prizes for the tiny Passamaquoddy First Nation in southern New Brunswick as it negotiates status recognition with the government of Canada. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Another Indigenous fishery is in the works in the Maritimes — and this one has international implications.

Fishing rights are one of the big prizes for the tiny Passamaquoddy First Nation in southern New Brunswick as it negotiates status recognition with the government of Canada.

With that recognition, the Indigenous community, which also refers to itself as Peskotomuhkati, would qualify for fishery access accorded to other status First Nations in the region.

There are about 350 members in the Passamaquoddy Schoodic Band in Canada. However, the Passamaquoddy homeland straddles the New Brunswick-Maine border.

If Canada recognizes the Passamaquoddy, some are wondering if that would also allow the much larger Maine population of 3,000 to fish in Canadian waters.

Some fishermen are worried about how status recognition for the Passamaquoddy could affect their income. (Canadian Press)

"They fish year-round in the United States, so it's a concern to people who fish in the Passamaquoddy Bay because it's such a small bay," said Bradley Small, a commercial scallop fisherman and president of the Fundy North Fishermen's Association.

Another sensitivity is whether that fishing occurs out of season, when commercial fishing is not permitted in Canada for conservation reasons.

"One of the hurdles we have is they fish in a different manner," Small said.

What are the boundaries?

It's also not clear exactly how far into Canadian waters the Passamaquoddy would be entitled to fish.

Small said the primary effort would be in Passamaquoddy Bay on the Maine-New Brunswick border, but it could also encompass the waters around Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy.

Map of the Passamaquoddy ancestral territory as shown on Wabanaki.com. (Wabanaki.com)

A map on the Maine Passamaquoddy website shows their homeland waters reaching toward southern Nova Scotia and its lucrative lobster grounds.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans declined to address a question about the type of fishery that may be put in place for the southern New Brunswick First Nation.

"As the negotiations with the Peskotomuhkati are confidential, it would be inappropriate to release details of what is being discussed," DFO Maritimes spokesperson Debbie Buott-Matheson said in an email.

First Nation, fishermen group talking

Both Small and Fundy North Fishermen's Association executive director Maria Recchia credit the Schoodic Passamaquoddy and their chief, Hugh Akagi, for working with them to defuse potential conflict. The two groups have been talking for a year.

"We've certainly had a very good experience in working with the Peskotomuhkati leadership. They've been very forthcoming with us and they are interested in hearing from us," said Recchia.

"It's the first time Fundy North has ever been invited to have these kind of discussions with a First Nation. We really appreciate that."

The Schoodic Passamaquoddy did not respond to CBC News inquiries this week.

"We've had good meetings with the Passamaquoddy and we've sat down and tried to figure out some way that this may be done to benefit them and also be done in a manner that least impacts the commercial fishermen that are there already," said Small in a phone interview as he fished 19 kilometres off Saint John, N.B.

Meeting planned for Thursday

The Fundy North Fishermen's Association has called a meeting for Thursday in St. George, N.B., to update members on discussions with the Passamaquoddy.

Recchia urges fishermen "to take a breath and not to think the worst."

"There's some big concerns out there. There are a lot of rumours going around. Most of them are not true."

She said fishermen fear reduced access, shrinking income and increased competition on the water.

No fishery plan yet

At this point, both Small and Recchia say there is no fishery plan or proposal from the Schoodic Passamaquoddy.

It's not clear whether there will be a Passamaquoddy fishery in 2018.

If Canada recognizes the Passamaquoddy, some are wondering if that would also allow the much larger Maine population of 3,000 to fish in Canadian waters. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

"That's the million-dollar question," Recchia said. "We don't know at this point in time and it is getting quite close to the summertime. There is a lot of stress around that. All we can say is we are going to keep talking and keep communicating with the fishing community."

Nova Scotia's painful 2017 experience

New Brunswick fishermen just had to look across the Bay of Fundy in the summer of 2017 to see some of the tensions that can creep into an Indigenous fishery.

There were widespread complaints that Indigenous fishermen used a food, social and ceremonial licence to cloak a commercial lobster fishery in St. Marys Bay. 

DFO later acknowledged the system had been abused.

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.