Nova Scotia

Bigger Mi'kmaw lobster fishery possible because DFO redistributed unused licences

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been buying back unused lobster licences to increase the Mi'kmaw trap allotment from 1,600 to 4,600 during the spring fishery in waters off Cape Breton Island.

Federal department increases trap allotment from 1,600 to 4,600 during Cape Breton's spring lobster season

People in a canoe paddle past a large fishing boat tied up in a canal lined with people.
Potlotek First Nation was the first in Cape Breton to launch a moderate livelihood fishery and since then the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has expanded it to include We'koqma'q and Eskasoni. (Brent Kelloway/CBC)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has worked with commercial fishers to significantly increase Mi'kmaw access to the lobster fishery around Cape Breton this spring.

Mike Leonard, director of Indigenous fisheries management for DFO's Maritimes region, said the federal department has bought back lobster licences over the years as commercial fishers voluntarily relinquished them, creating a bank of licences that Indigenous communities can access.

That process has allowed Eskasoni to join two other First Nations in the moderate livelihood fishery during this spring's season without affecting the health of the lobster stocks, he said.

"In the first year, in 2021, we worked with Potlotek First Nation and then last year We'koqma'q First Nation joined as well and this year it's become an Unama'ki approach, so across the Unama'ki traditional territory, which aligns with Cape Breton," Leonard said.

With the addition of Eskasoni, DFO has allotted the three communities licences for 4,600 lobster traps that can be used in all of the lobster fishing areas around Cape Breton Island.

Last year, Potlotek and We'koqma'q fished just over 1,600 traps off Cape Breton, under the Netukulimk Livelihood Fisheries Plan first developed by Potlotek, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs and Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn Negotiation Office.

DFO cites 'collaborative management approach'

Netukulimk is a Mi'kmaw word that represents the principle of using natural resources for the benefit of individuals and the community without harming the environment.

The licences are provided at no charge to the First Nations under an interim understanding and they decide among themselves how to divide them up.

"We provide the 4,600 trap allocation through the understandings for those First Nations and then they essentially make decisions around designations and who fishes from what community, so that's left as part of the collaborative management approach," Leonard said. "That's something that they look after."

DFO recognizes Indigenous people's treaty right to earn a moderate living from fisheries, but uses interim understandings to provide access to fish stocks with conservation in mind, while working toward longer-term arrangements.

Last year, DFO also had understandings with four Mi'kmaw communities on the mainland, including Pictou Landing, Bear River, Annapolis Valley and Acadia.

Two other Mi'kmaw communities in Cape Breton — Membertou and Wagmatcook — currently do not take part in the moderate livelihood fishery regulated by DFO.

Leonard could not say whether they are in discussions to reach an understanding with DFO.

"What happens next year or the year after, we're always working to continue on the implementation of the rights and to work with communities as they need or based on what interests they have," he said.

"This is some work that we've been doing in collaboration with some First Nations over the last few years and we are really focused on building on that progress."



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at

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