Nova Scotia

Why baby eels could be the next Indigenous moderate livelihood fishery in N.S.

The conflict between Mi'kmaw fishers and the federal government has escalated recently with a riverside crackdown and a minimum size imposed on eels harvested under First Nation food, social and ceremonial licences.

A recent crackdown saw DFO stop Mi'kmaw fishers from dipping for elvers

hundreds of tiny eels held in cupped hands.
Elvers are shown by a buyer in Portland, Maine in 2012. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

The fishery for elvers is raising tensions once again in Nova Scotia over First Nation treaty rights and management of a multimillion-dollar fishery.

In an incident last week by a river, federal fisheries officers stopped several Sipekne'katik fishermen from dipping for the baby eels, seizing gear in the process. The fishermen claimed a treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

Earlier this year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada imposed a minimum size for eels harvested by the Mi'kmaq under communal food, social and ceremonial licences in the Maritime region expressly to prevent the elver harvest.

A video of the March 29 confrontation was posted to Facebook.

In a post, one of the fishermen, Robert Syliboy, said he had been charged for exercising his treaty rights.

DFO said in recent weeks, 14 people have been arrested and a number of seizures made related to unauthorized fishing of elvers in Nova Scotia.

The department declined to provide more details, saying "these matters are part of on-going investigations." 

It is not clear if the enforcement actions relate only to Mi'kmaw fishermen.

On Tuesday, Chief Mike Sack called a meeting to discuss "treaty fisheries and our members who have been charged lately."

"I'm looking to hear what they want from us and how we can support them and move forward with this. [It] looked to be like a lot of harassment going on. They were just exercising their right to a better life and a livelihood," he said on his way into the meeting.

Are elvers the next moderate livelihood fishery?

Sack said Sipekne'katik is creating a management plan to govern an elver fishery, as it did when it became the first Mi'kmaw band to launch a moderate livelihood lobster fishery in September 2020.

Syliboy declined to speak to CBC.

Tiny and transparent, elvers are sold for thousands of dollars per kilogram and flown to Asia where they are raised to adulthood for food.

Since 2011, the average price per kilogram has been $3,300 per kilogram, according to DFO data. The price peaked in 2019 at $5,200. The commercial fishery, which runs from April to early summer, was valued at nearly $39 million that year.

There are nine licence holders in the commercial fishery in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick , including the We'koqma'q First Nation in Cape Breton.

They share a total allowable catch of 9,960 kilograms.

Mi'kmaw fishermen presence increases

Since 2016, an increasing number of Mi'kmaq have fished for elvers under food, social and ceremonial licences issued for American eels.

One year ago, activity under those licences increased dramatically early in the season and DFO shut down the entire 2020 elver harvest, citing conservation concerns.

The Million Dollar Baby Eel Deal

2 years ago
Duration 3:03
After hundreds of kilograms of baby eels turn up on the black market, fisheries officers launch a sting operation to break up the trafficking ring.

In February, DFO placed a minimum 10-centimetre limit on the elvers caught under food, social and ceremonial licences.

"All FSC licence conditions in the Maritimes Region have been reviewed and now include measures, such as a minimum size, to require that no person shall fish for, catch or retain juvenile eels (elvers) under the authority of an FSC licence," DFO said in a statement.

"This decision has been made to support the conservation and protection of American eel and for the proper management and control of the fishery."

Sack rejects restrictions

Sack is ignoring the new licence conditions issued in February.

"By no means do we take that as something directly towards us," he said. "[Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan] has no right to govern our fisheries and we're outside of that fishery and establishing our own."

In a statement, DFO acknowledged the Mi'kmaw treaty right to fish for a moderate living was recognized in 1999 by the Supreme Court of Canada and "we are working in partnership to implement that right."

But the statement was vague when asked how that translates to elvers.

"The Marshall decision(s) stated that what is required to implement the right will vary 'from resource to resource, species to species, community to community and time to time,'" reads the statement.

What the commercial licence holders are saying

The commercial licence holders have formed an association called the Canadian Committee for a Sustainable Eel Fishery.

"CCSEF recognizes that important issues are at stake for the Crown, First Nations, Maritime seafood harvesters and local communities. These issues are for the Canadian government to resolve through nation-to-nation efforts but should include meaningful consultations with all parties involved," the licence holders said in a statement.

"The American eel fishery must be carefully managed and pursued by all parties due to overfishing concerns. The threat of illegal activity is a global concern."

What the Assembly of Nova Scotia Chiefs is saying 

In a statement, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs asserted First Nations interest in fishing elvers under food, social and ceremonial licences, and objected to the unilateral decision to suspend elver fishing in 2020 by DFO.

"While the protection and conservation of all species is always a concern for our people, the Mi'kmaw have a desire to fish elvers for Food, Social and Ceremonial purposes," Annapolis Valley First Nation Chief Gerald Toney said in a statement.

"We should be able to fish any species, as needed and as required, while respecting concerns for conservation, as outlined in Sparrow," he said, referencing the 1990 Supreme Court case that spelled out steps required to infringe on a treaty right.