Police watch in horror as Shippagan burns

Calm has returned to the fishing community of Shippagan after a weekend crab protest caused millions of dollars in damage. Rioters burned boats and buildings on Saturday, but police say the town was peaceful overnight.

Calm has returned to the fishing community of Shippagan after a weekend crab protest caused millions of dollars in damage. Rioters burned boats and buildings on Saturday, but police say the town was peaceful overnight.

Federal Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault says he was "shocked and saddened" by the arson and vandalism, but says his department bears no blame for the unrest.

The protest began on Friday night when a mob burned about 100 crab traps on the town's wharf and escalated on Saturday afternoon when about 250 people roamed the streets for nine hours, burning boats and buildings.

The men and women were protesting Ottawa's decision to reduce their snow crab quota and increase the number of licenses allowed to fish the lucrative species.

Thibeault says his department consulted extensively with local fishermen about the plan and suggested another meeting with DFO officials might soothe the fears of traditional crab workers.

The RCMP say they did not anticipate the violence and did not have enough officers to stop the destruction. So far, they have not made any arrests and are asking the public to come forward with evidence.

RCMP Sgt. Gary Cameron says a small group of about 10 officers watched in despair as the crowd set fire to four fishing vessels owned by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Big Cove First Nation, burned a crab-processing plant and warehouse to the ground and attempted to set fire to the local DFO office. Damage is estimated to be in the millions of dollars.

"We knew people were going to be mad," Cameron says, adding some of the rioters had been drinking alcohol. "But there is a big difference between being mad and what happened last [Saturday] night. If somebody would have told you, you would not have believed it. It was shocking."

Police could not respond

Cameron says fires raged and members of the public watched as vandals moved from place to place destroying property. He says police did not break up the crowd out of concern for public safety. "There were no lives at risk at any time, it was just property being damaged and with 250 people coming together like that, our first priority is to ensure the safety of the public."

The RCMP rushed in reinforcements, including a tactical team, a police dog unit and a helicopter. Cameron says about 50 police officers were on the scene by midnight, but it was too late to make arrests because the crowd had begun to calm down and go home.

The fishermen are angry that Ottawa has reduced their quota and ordered them to share 15 per cent of what's left with inshore lobster fishermen.

Snow crab is the most lucrative catch on the east coast and snow-crab fishermen are among the wealthiest in the sector. Lobster fishermen have had a temporary share since 1999, as a way to reduce pressure on the lobster stock. The federal fisheries minister made that sharing arrangement permanent on Friday.

More RCMP officers from across the province swarmed into the region on Sunday morning, while fire officials continued to douse smouldering boats and buildings. The warehouse was bulldozed and the fish plant – one of three in the town – was still standing Sunday afternoon but is a total loss.

RCMP are interviewing suspects and witnesses and asking the public to report the vandals, promising anonymity for those who provide information. They are also urging fishermen to stay home and be calm. If they don't, Cameron says the police are ready to put down any more disturbances.

"More of our resources are in place now and we are ready. We are certainly more ready today than we were Saturday night," he says.