Nova Scotia·Q&A

A Mi'kmaw chief on pressing ahead with moderate livelihood fishery despite protest

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack talks to CBC Information Morning host Portia Clark about the ongoing tension over Nova Scotia’s lobster fisheries.

Sipekne'katik band council to start issuing licences this week

Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Michael Sack, right, says his band will regulate their own fishery. (Paul Withers/CBC)

First Nations fishing rights have been a contentious issue for years in Nova Scotia, with the latest evidence displayed openly on local wharves just this week.

On Tuesday morning, hundreds of non-Indigenous commercial fishermen set up lobster-trap blockades in Saulnierville and later in Weymouth in the province's southwest.

The protesters say Mi'kmaw fishers are using their communal food, social and ceremonial harvest as a cloak for the operation of a large-scale commercial fishery outside the regulated season, unchecked by the federal government.

In response to the complaints, the Mi'kmaw fishers point to the 1999 Marshall decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld their right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

Crowds of commercial fishermen at the Saulnierville, N.S., wharf where they temporarily blocked access on Tuesday morning. (CBC)

But after more than 20 years, there has been no agreement on how to regulate a moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia, and now some Mi'kmaw leaders are taking the matter into their own hands.

Among them is Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack, who spoke to CBC Information Morning host Portia Clark about the tension over Nova Scotia's fisheries.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think of these protests? 

Mike Sack: Our people have seen it more as a scare tactic than anything. 

And how are you responding to that, are you scared? 

Sack: No. We don't have a problem with the commercial fishermen. We're just trying to define a moderate livelihood so our people can get out of poverty and the commercial fishermen seem to be taking it personal and interfering with our right to fish. 

They seem to be raising concerns about conservation and fishing out of the commercial season — what do you think about their concern around that?

Sack: The conservation issue is something that we take very seriously. We're going to monitor our people and we're going to keep a close eye on what we're taking out of the water. We take less than five percent out of those areas in regards to stock of the lobster. If the local fishermen are that concerned about it, they should agree to have a quota on the lobster. 

Some people catch over 100,000 pounds a season — there's no need of that. 

Stacks of lobster pots at the Saulnierville wharf with signs describing the grievances of commercial fishermen. They say DFO is not enforcing the deadline for the fishing season. (Paul Withers/CBC)

You are talking about a moderate livelihood, which has been established by the courts as your right. How do you define a moderate livelihood? 

Sack: That is the unknown. I think we might be worlds apart on that. The average Nova Scotia income should be at least the starting point, I would say. 

Do you think for people who are Indigenous, who are earning a moderate livelihood, that they have the right to do that during the off-season? 

Sack: We don't have a season. And we don't have the big 50-foot boats that are 24-foot wide that can go out there any time of year. Most of my people are using small boats that in September the water gets too rough for them to go out. 

For the last 21 years, it has been undefined, the moderate livelihood. But I've heard that lobsters have a seven-year cycle before they're able to be marketable for the right size, and stocks have not gone down; everyone says the catches are up. So whatever we fish doesn't hurt anything. 

I think the fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia who fish out of St. Marys Bay say the catches and the stock have gone down. 

Sack: Everybody has their own opinion, I guess, but there's been no science that shows the numbers are down. 

The band plans to issue your own lobster licences. How will that work? 

Sack: Thursday morning we're kicking that off, our moderate livelihood [fishery], and we're going to issue band members that meet all of the compliance and the regulations for our management plan, we'll issue them our own licence. And we're hoping that all levels of government will respect that and let us do our thing. 

What does this system of band-issued licences allow you to do? 

Sack: We're going to monitor and govern our own fisheries. We don't have many licences in our community. There's over [commercial] 1,000 licences down there in that area with 375 traps. Our licence is only 50 traps per licence, so we're not going to have that many traps in the water and we're hoping that DFO will protect our people and just let us fish.

We have our own guardians that will enforce our rules and regulations, so there's no need for anyone to interfere at all. 

And how will that system with the guardians work? 

We have people that are trained, just the same training as a DFO officer. We have our own boats that will be utilized to go out and monitor catches and make sure everybody's following the rules.

And how many licences do you plan to issue through the Sipekne'katik band?

Sack: That we're unsure of. We only have a limited number of people down there. We're taking a phased approach and our first phase is starting now and it's just going to depend on how many people come forward. Then we'll re-evaluate just to make sure that there's no issues of conservation or anything. But not everybody in our community wants to fish. 

There has been at least one incident in which non-Native fishermen are saying that Mi'kmaw fishermen are fishing illegally — there was a Chinese buyer who was convicted of illegally buying lobster caught using a First Nations licence. So will the guardians be monitoring that kind of situation? 

Sack: Yeah, the guardians will be monitoring and we're looking at issuing our own buying licences as well. So I guess in DFO's eyes, those lobsters that the Chinese buyers, if they came from our people, they consider them illegal. We consider them legal. So it's a matter of who thinks what. But in our eyes, it's all within our rules and regulations. 

Are you worried about the response from non-Indigenous fishermen when you start to issue these licences? 

Sack: No, I think that they should be happy … It took us a long time to get to this point to be able to regulate it. We hoped that the government would have worked with us to define a livelihood in the past, but it hasn't happened so we're taking steps to do it ourselves. And the commercial fishermen that are down there should be happy that we have all that stuff in place.

With files from Information Morning Nova Scotia