Nova Scotia

Sipekne'katik pivots on controversial lobster fishery in southwest N.S.

The Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia says it will delay the launch of an out-of-season self-regulated moderate livelihood lobster fishery planned for southwest Nova Scotia next week. Instead, Indigenous harvesters will fish for lobster in St. Marys Bay under communal food social and ceremonial licences.

Band says it will delay self-regulated fishery, will harvest under food, social and ceremonial licences

A supporter of Sipekne'katik holds a Mi'kmaw flag at the Saulnierville, N.S., wharf in the fall. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Sipekne'katik First Nation in Nova Scotia says it will delay the launch of an out-of-season self-regulated moderate livelihood lobster fishery planned for southwest Nova Scotia next week.

It's a temporary step back in a looming confrontation with Canadian authorities.

Instead, Indigenous harvesters will fish for lobster in St. Marys Bay in June under communal food, social and ceremonial (FSC) licences, which do not have commercial season restrictions. The licences are government authorized, but come with lower trap limits than what Sipekne'katik issued for the fishery it held last fall outside of federal regulations.

"It's been through the courts a few times and they can't take those traps," Chief Mike Sack told reporters Thursday, referring to FSC licences. "So we're hoping that that's an easier way forward for our people to fish."

Last November, DFO seized hundreds of traps from St. Marys Bay, many of which Sipekne'katik said belonged to the community.

Sack said the band will exercise its treaty right to a self-regulated moderate livelihood lobster fishery in the coming weeks, but it did not want a confrontation with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or with commercial fishermen who reacted — sometimes violently — when Sipekne'katik launched its fishery last fall.

"Our people are a little bit leery and reluctant to go fishing," he said. "You know, last year was such a beat down for our fishers and our community. They lost a lot of gear. So we're encouraged to get back out there. But it's going to be just a slower start than we wanted."

The Supreme Court of Canada recognized in 1999 the right of the Mi'kmaq to fish for what it called a moderate livelihood, but did not define the term.

Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack speaks to reporters on Thursday. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Despite appearances, Thursday's announcement is only a partial de-escalation.

Sack said the Sipekne'katik fishermen will sell an undisclosed portion of the catch "to cover costs," even though FSC licences do not permit the sale of the catch. Provincial regulations also prevent processors from buying FSC catch.

Sack scoffed at the notion there will not be willing buyers.

"I'd say 75 per cent of the buyers in southwest Nova Scotia will take lobsters for cash any day. And they do so and they've been doing so and they'll continue to do so," Sack said.

FSC licence holders are limited to four traps. When Sipekne'katik launched its fishery last fall, it said it allowed 50 traps per licence.

DFO promising enforcement

Late Thursday, the office of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan issued a statement saying the department will "ensure" FSC licence conditions are upheld.

"The purpose of this specific fishing license is clear — it is not a commercial licence, and selling any FSC catch is a breach of the FSC licence conditions," said press secretary Jane Deeks.

Earlier in the day, Jordan said the enforcement arm of her department will respond if Sipekne'katik does not have a fishing plan approved by the department.

Earlier this year, DFO conservation and protection officers seized traps from another unauthorized moderate livelihood fishery in Cape Breton.

Jordan had a message for commercial fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia.

"We don't want to see people taking the law into their own hands. This should be left up to [conservation and protection] to make sure that everything is done in an orderly fashion because they are there to make sure that they are upholding the Fisheries Act," Jordan said.

Last fall, commercial fishermen in the southwest pulled band members' traps when Sipekne'katik launched the first moderate livelihood lobster fishery.