Plan for mackerel trap fishery in St. Margarets Bay sets off dispute

The proposed revival of a commercial mackerel trap fishery in a popular recreational area of St. Margarets Bay outside Halifax is exposing the competition and conflict over the use of coastal waters in Nova Scotia.

Not everyone believes the traditional fishery belongs in the popular recreational area

Fisherman Gary Burchell at Micou's Island in St. Margarets Bay where he wants to install a traditional mackerel trap. (Robert Short/CBC)

The proposed revival of a commercial mackerel trap fishery in a popular recreational area of St. Margarets Bay outside Halifax is exposing the competition and conflict over the use of coastal waters in Nova Scotia.

Gary Burchell, a fisherman with family ties to the area, wants to install a mackerel trap at the tip of Micou's Island, a protected nine-hectare island on the eastern side of the bay.

The federal Fisheries Department is reviewing the proposal, which is generating debate in the beautiful and increasingly urbanized bay.

The sides in this conflict

On the one side are Burchell and his supporters who favour the return of a traditional fishery operated by one of the bay's oldest fishing families.

On the other side are some residents who say a large and cumbersome fish trap, where proposed, is not compatible with recreational uses like boating and swimming.

One opponent even issued a press release saying the trap poses a safety risk because it will attract seals and sharks.

A family tradition

"This site here has supplied the Burchell family with an income for generations," Burchell said recently aboard a bobbing Cape Islander, son Chester at the helm.

Burchell pointed to a shore boulder on Micou's Island, which anchored the leader for the mackerel trap used by his grandfather and uncle until it was abandoned about 20 years ago.

Chester Burchell in a Cape Islander. The Burchell family wants to revive a mackerel trap fishery after a 20-year hiatus. But others use these waters, too. (Robert Short/CBC)

Burchell intends to use the same location and set up for his trap.

It is a long, net fence extending from shore that directs fish into a large netted bowl anchored to the ocean floor where the mackerel are trapped and later harvested.

A native of the tiny St. Margarets Bay community of French Village, Burchell currently fishes for lobster in northern Cape Breton, but he hopes the mackerel trap fishery will bring him back to the bay for good.

"My goal is to create a life I don't have to take a vacation from and this would be the area I'd like to do it," he said.

The business plan

Burchell already has one mackerel trap nearby in French Village harbour that he bought from an aunt.

He bought another trap operation from the western side of St. Margarets Bay but DFO permission is needed to move it to Micou's Island.

He hopes to catch up to 100,000 pounds of mackerel a year, enough to justify building a smokehouse earning up to $5 a pound as opposed to 75 cents for fresh.

"It's so much a part of the fabric of this place. So to see them back after a generation is just absolutely fantastic," said Geoff LeBoutillier, a local resident who has known the family since he was a boy.

The case against

But the plan has detractors who say the proposed location and its large size no longer suit the area.

Micou's is home to a beautiful sandy beach accessible by a sandbar at low tide.

The trap leader will run 183 metres from shore into the bay, and the bowl where the fish are trapped is more than 120 metres wide.

"It's a beautiful area that people enjoy. Why have an unsightly commercial operation?" said Anna Hall, who has lived in the area for 29 years.

"We have a lot of boating. It's like putting a commercial weir next to the [Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron] in Halifax. How far would that fly?"

Shark attractor?

Hall said the trap will attract more seals. She said that's already happening around the mackerel trap Burchell installed three years ago in French Village harbour.

And where there are more seals, she said, there will be more sharks.

"Most people have noticed an increase in shark attacks on the Eastern Seaboard. We have not had one in Nova Scotia but my concern is, because I have grandchildren involved in sailing, they wear black neoprene suits," she said.

"It would be a travesty if one of those children were mistaken for a seal by a predator fish."

Burchell downplays threat 

Burchell said his operation wouldn't "create" seals and sharks where they don't already exist.

"They are here naturally and I don't think there is anything we can do to change that."

LeBoutillier went further, calling "the whole shark thing ... a smokescreen to oppose the trap."

"Recreational boaters are worried about navigational hazards and they see the fishery as just an interruption in what they want," he said. 

"They want to stick the bows of their boats into every corner of the bay ... There's room for everyone."

Trap season unclear

It is not clear yet how long the Micou's mackerel trap would be in the water.

Burchell told a public meeting last month it would be out of the water by July, but later told CBC News it would depend on abundance of fish and boat traffic.

He said the French Village and Micou's Island traps would not be in the water at the same time.

Public opinion to 'play a major role'

The St. Margaret's Bay Stewardship Association, which raised money to buy and preserve Micou's Island, has so far not taken a position on the proposal, which has divided members.

DFO is reviewing the proposal and said it will make a decision in the coming weeks.

"DFO is watching very closely," said Burchell.

"Public opinion plays a major role in the decision to allow us to fish here or not. And recreational use is a big issue. It will all be weighed, pros and cons."

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.