Nova Scotia

'Alarm bells' ring in N.S. lobster fishery after DFO move involving baby eels

A group representing lobster fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia is raising concerns about Ottawa's commitment to voluntary licence buyouts to increase Indigenous access, after the department stopped bargaining with licence holders in the lucrative elver fishery.

Group worried department's decision to stop negotiations with elver licence holders could set precedent

Lobster boats head out from West Dover, N.S., on Nov. 29, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

A group representing more than 500 lobster fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia is raising concerns about Ottawa's commitment to voluntary licence buyouts to increase Indigenous access to the fishery.

Late last month, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans cancelled bargaining with commercial licence holders in the elver, or baby eel, fishery, claiming they wanted too much money to exit the business.

The elver fishery in Nova Scotia has been highly lucrative in recent years, with baby eels flown to Asian fish farms where they are harvested as adults

DFO is now looking at an across-the-board commercial quota cut for elvers without compensation to make room for Mi'kmaw harvesters. 

"This initiative by DFO within the elver fishery that has been announced has set off alarm bells throughout the lobster fishery," said Dan Fleck, with the Brazil Rock Lobster Association.

Does DFO treatment of one fishery set a precedent in another?

Inshore fishermen's associations like Brazil Rock are also engaged with DFO on voluntary licence relinquishments to implement a Mi'kmaw treaty right to earn a "moderate livelihood."

Brazil Rock is named after a landmark marking the boundary between lobster fishing areas 33 and 34 in southwest Nova Scotia, the largest and most lucrative lobster fishing grounds in Canada.

Fleck said he is not aware of a single lobster licence buyback since the process started last year. Lobster fishermen worry what is happening to elver licence holders could happen to them.

"Does this mean that DFO can enter and take a licence from a commercial lobster fishermen or woman as is occurring in the elver fishery?" said Fleck.

Dan Fleck is with the Brazil Rock Lobster Association. (Submitted by Brazil Rock Lobster Association)

DFO did not respond when asked if a precedent is being set. The department said the 14 percent quota cut under consideration in the commercial elver fishery for the 2022 season would be an interim measure.

It is seeking feedback from licence holders and no decision has been made, said department spokesperson Lauren Sankey.

"DFO is considering this interim quota redistribution to support an increase in First Nations' participation in the commercial elver fishery without increasing overall fishing effort, while ensuring an orderly and sustainable fishery for all," Sankey said in a statement earlier this week.

Late Tuesday, DFO issued another statement, avoiding whether it has set a precedent for other fisheries.

Spokesperson Lauren Sankey said the commercial elver fishery is unique.

"It has seen exponential growth in value over the past decade and lower costs in gear or vessels to enter, compared to other fisheries. Due to these factors, the elver fishery presents a potential avenue to increase Indigenous participation in commercial fisheries," Sankey said in an email.

"DFO is actively working to advance both long-term negotiated agreements and interim understandings with Indigenous communities on moderate livelihood fishing plans."

Elver licence holders learned of DFO's intentions in a Feb. 24 letter from Maritimes regional director Jacinta Berthier, who told them a second round of bargaining over licence buybacks was cancelled because the sides were too far apart on money.

In this March 2012 file photo, elvers are shown by a buyer in Portland, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

The department refuses to release its valuation, claiming it is proprietary information belonging to the company that provided it.

"They've bungled this. They haven't done their job," said Brian Giroux, managing director of the Shelburne Elver Group, one of nine commercial elver licence holders in the Maritimes.

In 2019, DFO estimated each licence made $4.3 million on average.

Giroux said the industry used a standard calculation to value the business at around seven times annual earnings, putting the value of a licence well over $20 million.

"They haven't negotiated in good faith," he said of DFO. "They haven't released their data. They've asked us to submit something. They did nothing until the 11th hour and now it's expropriation with no consultation and no compensation."

Potential species-at-risk listing

Giroux said the potential listing of American eel as a species at risk has blocked any expansion of the commercial elver fishery to accommodate more First Nations access (the We'koqma'q band in Cape Breton has a commercial licence).

The listing has sat in limbo for over a decade.

"They've completely bungled the species-at-risk file in Ottawa on this whole issue. It's been malingering now for about 17 years," he said. "If they put that issue to bed there's more than enough room in the stock for a lot of Native participation, and we've told them that we're operating at very conservative levels of management here."

The Acadia and Bear River bands in southwest Nova Scotia have submitted "interim" plans to DFO for a moderate livelihood elver fishery in 19 watersheds, from Gold River to Meteghan.

DFO has signed off on their moderate livelihood lobster fishing plan for the 2021 and 2022 lobster season.

Questions about the elver fishery were referred to the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi'kmaw Chiefs, which has not responded to requests for comment.