Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans says there are "clear indications" of abuse in the First Nations food, social and ceremonial lobster fishery underway this summer in St. Marys Bay, N.S.

Since June, non-Indigenous lobster fishermen have complained that some Indigenous fishermen are using the fishery to cloak a black market lobster fishery.

"They are making it clear DFO has to step in," said Morley Knight, assistant deputy Minister with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Lobster forum

Knight addressed the issue during a lobster forum Wednesday in Yarmouth attended by more than 100 fishermen.

Knight, who flew in from Ottawa, said DFO has responded to complaints about the situation in St. Marys Bay with increased inspections, patrols and surveillance.

"There are pretty clear indications now that there are activities related to the illegal sale of FSC (food, social and ceremonial) lobster," Knight said. "We're focused on both ends of that. If there are people selling lobster illegally, we're also very focused on catching those who buy the illegal lobster."

Knight stressed that under the food, social and ceremonial fishery, Indigenous fishermen are fully entitled to be on the water but not to sell the lobster they catch.

'We are satisfied'

Bay of Fundy lobster fisherman Chris Hudson liked what he heard.

"We are satisfied with what DFO had to say. We're anxiously looking to see if they do what they say, and that is enforce the rule of law, which is all we are asking," Hudson said.

Chris Hudson

Bay of Fundy lobster fisherman Chris Hudson said he liked what he heard. Hudson is also the president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association. (CBC)

Two Nova Scotia fisheries representatives delivered that same message in person to federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc in Ottawa this week.

Frustration over St. Marys Bay has prompted a number of peaceful protests by non-Indigenous fishermen in September.

Mike Sack, chief of the Sipekne'katik Band — which holds a First Nation FSC for St Marys Bay — has brushed aside criticism.

Other opportunities: European free trade 

The situation is a local irritant, but the industry is facing other challenges — and opportunities.

On Thursday, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union goes into effect, resulting in the immediate lifting of an eight per cent tariff on live Canadian lobster.

Over the next five years, tariffs of up to 20 per cent will be eliminated on processed lobster.

DFO protest

About 100 fishermen protested at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans office in Digby, N.S., on Sept. 14. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Marketer Geoff Irvine, of the Lobster Council of Canada, said the deal has big potential.

"It means probably we can put our prices up marginally, hopefully. It means we can expand into markets where we couldn't sell processed lobster before. Those are all good things for Canadian exporters," Irvine said.

Irvine was one of a number of experts speaking at the second annual lobster forum, which is organized by fisheries groups.

Designing their own monitoring program

Fisheries groups in southwestern Nova Scotia are trying to design a monitoring program that will satisfy demands from DFO for greater oversight in the lobster fishery.

The department wants a program to monitor bycatch fish species like cusk that are accidentally caught in lobster traps.

"It's either find a way to do it yourselves or they will force it on us as a licence condition, and that would mean having to hail in and hail out, which is prohibitively expensive," said Hudson.

He and others are trying to come up with an at-sea observer program that would meet DFO's requirements without the expense and bother of calling a dockside monitoring company every time a vessel leaves and returns to port.

"This is something we should have done long ago, done ourselves. But it's not going to be easy," says Hudson.