Nova Scotia

Commercial fishermen rally in Digby over Mi'kmaw fishery

Several hundred commercial fishermen held a rally in Digby on Tuesday as tensions simmered over expanded Mi’kmaw lobster fishing in the area.

Ex-fisheries minister calls for pause on out-of-season fishing and protests by fishermen

Former Nova Scotia fisheries minister Sterling Belliveau addresses several hundred commercial fishermen at a rally Tuesday. (Paul Withers/CBC)

Several hundred commercial fishermen held a rally Tuesday in Digby, N.S., as tensions continued to simmer over expanded Mi'kmaw lobster fishing in the area.

There were calls for a pause on all out-of-season fishing by First Nations and an audit of commercial licences awarded to bands following the 1999 Marshall decision that recognized their right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

Afterward, some fishermen gathered outside a lobster facility in New Edinburgh suspected of buying lobster harvested by Mi'kmaq fishermen when the season is closed.

There was an RCMP presence at that gathering, which was held on the eve of the Wednesday opening of commercial fishing in Lobster Fishing Area 35 in the Bay of Fundy.

A CBC News crew was turned away from the New Edinburgh wharf by commercial fishermen unhappy with coverage, saying it was one-sided.

Southwestern Nova Scotia has been the scene of conflict over whether an Indigenous treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood can take place when the commercial season is closed.

Sterling Belliveau, a former provincial fisheries minister, spoke at the rally and called for a one-year pause on Mi'kmaw lobster fishing when commercial seasons are closed and a stop to protests by commercial fishermen.

"We need an opportunity to negotiate and discuss the issues. I can assure you the commercial industry feels they have not had an opportunity to have their voices heard at the table," Belliveau told CBC News.

Sterling Belliveau, a former provincial fisheries minister, spoke at the rally on Tuesday. Belliveau called for a one-year pause on protests and out-of-season Mi’kmaw lobster fishing to give time for discussions on implementing treaty rights. (CBC)

"Whatever Marshall started needs to happen within the seasons. It's as simple as that. Once you get outside of those seasons, you are going to have this conflict."

The Sipekne'katik band touched off the latest round of protest when it launched its own moderate livelihood lobster fishery last month in nearby St. Marys Bay without authorization from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The band said it was exercising a treaty right recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada 21 years ago. The court affirmed the right but later issued a ruling that the federal government has the authority to regulate the Mi'kmaw fishery.

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack and the band council were in Digby on Tuesday, meeting with Sipekne'katik fishermen who received moderate livelihood lobster tags.

He dismissed the idea of a pause in the fishery.

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack and the band council were in Digby on Tuesday meeting with band fishermen who received moderate livelihood lobster tags. (Logan Perley/CBC)

"It's a typical answer from a commercial fisherman or the commercial industry," he said. "They just want their way and if it's not going their way, they want everyone to stop and adhere to them."

Belliveau has argued a two-tier commercial fishery — one for the Mi'kmaq without seasons and one for non-Indigenous harvesters — will lead to chaos.

"The chaos is not only the regulatory side of it, but in the marketplace. The marketplace is geared to these seasonal differences [in landings] across our Atlantic coast. I use the word 'chaos' and I truly believe that is what is going to happen," he said.

In the years since the Marshall decision, DFO never defined the rules for a moderate livelihood fishery.

Instead, it spent over $500 million to integrate Maritime bands into the commercial fishery.

Rally organizers called for an audit to see who has benefited from the commercial fishing licences awarded to Maritime bands by the federal government between 1999 and 2020.

Holly Amirault, who works in the seafood industry and is married to a fisherman, said some licences held by bands are leased to non-Indigenous people.

"What we're seeing is it's non-Native fishermen that are running the boats. The people who should be on the boats aren't. So the wealth is spread to very few people, not to the rest of the bands," Amirault said.

A report last fall by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute — an Ottawa think-tank — tells a different story.

The report, which was issued on the 20th anniversary of the Marshall decision, said commercial fishing has been a boon to Maritime bands who are, in total, taking in over $100 million in fishing-related revenues.

In the meantime, the commercial industry shows no sign of letting up.

Sipekne'katik First Nation fishing boats tied up at the Saulnierville wharf on Sept. 22, 2020. (Robert Short/CBC)

Chris Melanson, a commercial fisherman in St. Marys Bay, said he was thinking of selling out in frustration over increasing Mi'kmaw fishing. 

He told the assembled fishermen Tuesday he's "kind of found hope again" in the recent weeks.

"A lot of us in St. Marys Bay felt all alone for the past four years, and we know we're not anymore," he said to a round of applause.


Paul Withers


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.