Nova Scotia

Mi'kmaq chiefs reject any ban on Indigenous fishing in marine protected areas

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs say indigenous fishermen should be exempt from any prohibition on fishing within marine protected areas, including those with no-take zones.

'DFO should not impose restrictions or limitations on what the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia can harvest'

A federal advisory group heard from Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs on potential fishing prohibitions in marine protected areas at a public consultation last week. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq chiefs say Indigenous fishermen should be exempt from any prohibition on fishing within marine protected areas because of First Nations' treaty rights.

"Our concerns and our input should have a greater weight in the decision making process than those of, for example, non-Mi'kmaw commercial fishers," said Twila Gaudet, director of consultation for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs.

That statement was part of a submission made to a federal advisory panel charged with developing standards for marine protected areas. The Trudeau government has committed to protect 10 per cent of coastal waters and oceans by 2020.

The advisory panel is supposed to release its recommendations this month on what activities should and should not be allowed inside the protected areas.

The key issue is no-take zones where fishing and offshore energy development would be prohibited.

In their submission, the Mi'kmaq chiefs say First Nations have demonstrated their commitment to conservation but their rights to fish for a moderate living and their food, social and ceremonial fishery supercede any international commitments.

"To be clear, DFO should not impose restrictions or limitations on what the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia can harvest in MPAs," Gaudet said.

The question of no-take zones has come to dominate the debate over the province's Eastern Shore Islands.

The waters around the Eastern Shore Islands of Nova Scotia, shown in a handout photo, have been announced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada as an 'area of interest' for a marine protected area. (Peter Green/Canadian Press)

The sprawling and pristine archipelago east of Halifax is the first proposed marine protected area with an active inshore lobster fishery.

There is a fear among those that fish in the area that a no-take zone designation could bump them from lobster grounds.

Last week, a local advisory committee held a public consultation at a local legion to discuss activities in the marine area.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans "does not expect there to be an impact on the lobster fishery" if the Eastern Shore Islands are designated as marine protected area, DFO ocean manager Wendy Williams said during a break.

Peter Connors, president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen's Protective Association, says he'd like to see a single commercial fishery that includes the Mi'kmaq. (CBC)

That didn't satisfy fisherman Peter Connors, who also represents 170 lobster licence holders in the area through the Eastern Shore Fishermen's Protective Association.

"Nobody will say it's not going to have some kind of impact. They are going to try and minimize the impact. The words are crafted so there is room to manoeuvre​ there," he said.

'A big issue'

"No take is a big issue because it would be so dislocating. We have a territorial fishery. Some of the disputes that have taken place over the years, we all have a certain amount of territory here that we all respect, for the most part."

He wants a commitment from the federal government to prevent the fishery from being damaged if the area received a marine protected designation.

Long-time environmental activist Susanna Fuller agrees.

"We probably need to take that off the table as the initial starting point," she said. "Confirm that recreational fisheries can still happen, confirm that the lobster fishery will be maintained."

With the lobster fishery running just two months of the year, even if no-take zones are best practices, this isn't the hill to die on, she said.

'We probably have to go back to ground zero'

"If we want this process to lead to an MPA, we probably have to go back to ground zero and start again, and think about the objectives of the entire community and how do we get there," Fuller said.

"And the no take seems to be a real sticking point even if it's not going to impact most of the users. If it's a hot potato, get rid of the hot potato. That is my advice."

Lobster fishermen load traps onto their boats. (Nathan Rochford/Canadian Press)

Live-lobster exporter Stewart Lamont does not buy what he calls the "myth" that the lobster fishery will be threatened by marine protection.

He said DFO knows it is a fundamental part of the economy in the area and has a low impact on marine life in the Eastern Shore area.

The designation is a chance to promote the Eastern Shore, already featured in a Nova Scotia Nature Trust campaign to protect "100 Wild Islands" located in the proposed marine protected area.

"I can imagine what it could be here in the Eastern Shore. This is, as we say, an under-performing region in Nova Scotia," Lamont said.

"It has all the potential in the world — coupled with 100 Wild Islands, coupled with experiential tourism, coupled with the greater value of and the wonderful biomass here in our wild fisheries. It's all part of a piece that we can use as a platform for economic sustainability."

St. Anns Bank in Cape Breton is on the list of marine protected areas in Nova Scotia. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

The Mi'kmaq submission to the panel does not surprise Connors.

"Our association has always supported reconciliation. Our position is for a single fishery including the Mi'kmaq and bringing them into the commercial fishery, on the same basis that everybody else does here," he said.

In a statement to CBC News, Twila Gaudet said the Mi'kmaq are currently in consultations with DFO on marine protected areas.

"While we of course support marine conservation, we also want to ensure that DFO carefully considers all impacts that MPA designations will have on Mi'kmaq rights," she said.

"The MPA network design must accommodate the Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, and our ability to fish for a moderate livelihood, as well as other Mi'kmaq fishing activities."

Read more articles from CBC Nova Scotia

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Paul Withers

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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.