Fishermen call on government officials to crack down on lobster poaching
'They’ve actually failed in a lot of instances,' says Coldwater Lobster Association president
Bernie Berry glances across the wharf in Digby, N.S., as several fishing boats stop alongside for crews to offload their catch. As the season for this lobster fishing area — one of the most lucrative in Canada — prepares to close on the last day of May, it's bringing with it a flurry of activity.
Berry and others here hope the hustle and bustle of fishing isn't replaced with negative activity come June 1.
"Everyone knows what's going on," he said. "This kind of stuff has been going on for years."
The "stuff" Berry, president of the Coldwater Lobster Association is referring to, is poaching.
Last September, tensions started to flare amid reports some First Nations fishermen were taking lobsters caught as part of the food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fishery and selling them into the black market. Berry said those people are being aided by "non-native people on the boats and on the shore."
At the time, senior DFO officials travelled from Ottawa for meetings in an attempt to calm tensions, while also acknowledging clear indications of abuse in the fishery. Meanwhile, large volumes of lobster were dumped in the woods near Weymouth, boats were set ablaze or tampered with and threats were uttered, prompting RCMP involvement.
Berry said a particular source of frustration for fishermen is what seems to be a lack of co-ordination on the part of government departments, agencies and law enforcement to stop the poaching and break up the black market.
"Why haven't they engaged CRA [Canada Revenue Agency], border services? Follow the money," said Berry.
"They should have done it a long time ago. They've actually failed in a lot of instances."
Like Berry, Colin Sproul, vice-president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, said the problem is not with First Nations fishermen or their right to the FSC fishery.
"This is a poaching problem, plain and simple," he said.
"When poachers are taking that resource in the summertime when it's breeding season for lobsters, they're not only damaging non-Indigenous fishermen here, but they're really hurting people in First Nations communities, and to perpetuate that under the guise of the FSC fishery is really outrageous."
Anecdotally, Berry said catches were down in particular this season in St. Marys Bay, the area at the centre of poaching concerns last year. DFO officials have not disputed fishermen's estimations of what might have been removed illegally last summer, and Berry said he expects fishermen's logbooks, which will be submitted this summer, will back up the "substantial" decline in landings.
"You won't have too much difficulty connecting the dots," said Berry.
Sproul said the decline in catches affected everyone last fall, because First Nations fishermen are very much involved in the commercial season when it opens in St. Marys Bay.
"They lost their catches, too."
DFO investigation still ongoing
Derreck Parsons, chief of enforcement operations for DFO's Maritimes region, said he's aware of increasing tensions related to poaching concerns, and his colleagues are working to defuse the situation.
"I think, based on last year, what we saw is a need for very open dialogue and communication with all stakeholders and what we've tried to change this year is we've tried to approach it so that we have all the lines of communication open ahead of time so that, hopefully, we're getting as much information as possible," he said.
Parsons said an investigation was opened last year related to activities in southwest Nova Scotia and that work remains ongoing.
"I really hope that you'll be hearing more about that soon," he said.
Parsons said patrol plans have been developed to determine how the presence of fisheries officers will look on the water, wharfs and in the communities. He said people can expect officers to be extremely visible, something he hopes will prompt people to report anything they think is suspicious.
RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke said in a statement patrols would increase in areas when fishing season comes to an end.
"We have been working and will continue to work with our law enforcement partners and our communities in order to best address any issues that arise."
Membertou First Nation Chief Terry Paul, who holds the fisheries portfolio for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, was unavailable for an interview.
Paul has said in the past, however, he believes the federal government could be doing more to help everyone by finally defining what constitutes a "moderate livelihood," as mentioned in the landmark Marshall ruling of 1999.
Sproul noted that most of the animosity that existed between First Nations and non-Indigenous fishermen following the Marshall decision has long since passed.
But he worries if the poaching situation isn't addressed, it may open old wounds and bring unfair criticism to First Nations fishermen.
"To let a small group of people make all that water come flooding back under the bridge because of this bad blood that's being generated is not in the best interest of anyone.
"And it's definitely not in the best interest of the First Nations fishermen who legally exercise their rights here to commercially fish, and they don't deserve that hurt being brought on them by criminals."