Nova Scotia

The lobster catch in St. Marys Bay is down, but there's little consensus on why

A group representing non-Indigenous commercial fishermen is pointing the finger squarely at the Mi'kmaw fishery. But the Mi'kmaq and the federal government say the numbers reflect a wider ebb and flow of the lobster stocks.

Is it part of a natural cycle? Or the result of out-of-season fishing?

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

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has released data showing a decrease in the amount of lobster caught between 2016 and 2018 in St. Marys Bay, the body of water at the centre of a disputed Mi'kmaw fishery in southwest Nova Scotia.

Lobster landings in St. Marys Bay were 1,691 metric tonnes in the 2016-2017 season with a record high value of $25 million, according to data released to CBC News by the department.

Two years later, landings were down 46 per cent by weight and 32 per cent by value.

Some non-Indigenous commercial fishermen blame the reduced landings on an increase in fishing in the area by Mi'kmaw fishermen when the commercial season is closed. 

Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne'katik First Nation says there is no evidence that Mi'kmaw fishing is responsible for the decrease. 

"We are very conservative and we want to preserve the lobster and make sure it's there for our seven generations to come," he told CBC News. 

"That includes our people, the commercial, whoever is on the water. But lobster also do have that seven-year life cycle. Stocks are up, they are down." 

Sack says a quota system could be put in place on all commercial licences if there is concern about conservation of lobster stocks in St. Marys Bay.  

Decreases vary in wider fishing area

In a statement, the department said the rate of change "is not dissimilar to that observed in others areas of Lobster Fishing Area 34 during the same period."

LFA 34, as it is known, is the largest lobster fishing area in Canada with more than 900 licensed commercial fishermen harvesting from the southern tip of Nova Scotia up to Digby in the Bay of Fundy.

The average decrease in LFA 34 over the period was 6 per cent by weight and 17 per cent by value. 

The department says landings varied overall within LFA 34 with "some being higher and some being lower," than St. Marys Bay.

Fishing effort dropped 

The data also shows the number of licensed boats fishing in St. Marys Bay dropped by 16 per cent over the two-year period.

Colin Sproul of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association says increased out-of-season fishing by the members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation is why the commercial effort went down.

"There's no lobster there to fish for, so they had to leave. Normally they'd fish every day there for the first three weeks [of the season]. Now the [lobsters] are gone in four or five days because they were already caught by Shubie," Sproul said.

Waiting on official 2019-2020 data

Sproul says he received data for landings for St. Marys Bay from the 2019-2020 season from the federal government. He says they show a continued decline to below 600 metric tonnes, making the three-year decrease 68 per cent.

The department declined to provide 2019-2020 landings from St. Marys Bay to CBC News, saying it has not received all the log books back from commercial fishermen.

Sproul says the department is hedging.

"They're deliberately working the data by refusing to analyze the entire three years that we were talking about," he said.

Landings have ebbed and flowed since 2002

The department provided CBC News with lobster landing data from 2018 back to 2002.

It shows a decrease in landings in both LFA 34 overall and St. Marys Bay starting in 2016.

However landings have not yet gone down to their lowest point in St. Marys Bay. In 2006-2007, landings were 900 metric tonnes, similar to the landings in 2018-2019.

After 2007, the landings rose for several years before peaking at 1,855 metric tonnes in 2012-2013, followed by a two year dip.

Why St. Marys Bay is disputed

Since 2017, commercial fishermen have repeatedly complained about an increasing Mi'kmaw lobster fishery in St. Marys Bay in summer months when the commercial season is closed.

The Sipekne'katik First Nation has insisted their fishing in St. Marys Bay has been too small to impact stock health. At the end of September, the Mi'kmaw-run lobster fishery had 10 boats, with a total capacity of 500 traps.

In the 2018-2019 fishing season, there were 965 boats licensed to fish LFA 34, with most permitting 375 to 400 traps per licence.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Withers

Reporter

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.

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