In wake of opposition to Mi'kmaw fishery, Sipekne'katik First Nation is studying impact of its lobster season
Study in St. Marys Bay, N.S., the latest development in conflict over Mi'kmaw treaty right to fish
In the darkness of an early morning, a lobster boat leaves the wharf and heads through Nova Scotia's St. Marys Bay into the open ocean. It rises on large waves as the wind blows through the open windows. Crew members talk and laugh as they drink their coffee.
The boat, Mamma Ain't Happy, is owned by Sipekne'katik First Nation and is fishing under food, social, and ceremonial (FSC) tags. The tags are the licence under which the lobster can legally be fished and allow the band to harvest it for those purposes but not to sell it.
After each trip, the catch is brought back to the community for lobster giveaways that feed most of the families in the second-largest Mi'kmaw band in Nova Scotia.
But this boat doesn't just fish for people's supper. It's also a data collection site for a study on lobster conservation.
Megan Bailey, Canada Research Chair in integrated ocean and coastal governance and a professor in Dalhousie University's marine affairs program in Halifax, stands on the deck with a clipboard as traps are brought up from the ocean floor.
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Each lobster is carefully examined by fisheries guardians from Sipekne'katik. They use calipers to measure the lobster's size, then squeeze certain places on the body to determine shell hardness, measured on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scale.
Bailey takes notes and records these criteria, along with the sex of the lobsters. Those that are too small, soft or damaged are thrown back. Females with eggs are marked with what's known as a V-notch on their tail to let other fishers know not to harvest a breeder.
Little data collected June-October
This conservation study is the latest development in a historical conflict that escalated last year over the Mi'kmaw treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood outside of the commercial season.
The study, led by Bailey, was launched in the spring of 2021 by the Sipekne'katik fisheries department as a way to answer questions about the quality of lobsters harvested outside of the commercial fishing season.
"What proportion are getting thrown back because they're too soft, too small? And how does that compare with the commercial fishery? And is that a problem or not a problem?" Bailey said. "Those kinds of things can't be answered without collecting the data."
She pointed out that DFO does collect data on the quality of the catch during the commercial season, but very little data has been collected from June to October.
Aaron MacNeil, associate professor and Canada Research Chair in fisheries ecology at Dalhousie University who is not involved in the research, said this study is breaking new ground.
"A lot of the data that we get comes from log books that the commercial fishery fills in themselves," he said. "So the more data we have, the more we're going to be able to assess what the status of lobster is throughout the year, but also the effects of catching them in what is not the commercial fishing season."
Western and Indigenous knowledge coexist
This study is also culturally significant for Sipekne'katik First Nation.
"It's really important because it gives us the information we need," said Cheryl Maloney, a Sipekne'katik band member and political science instructor at Cape Breton University.
"It's being done by our people, and it's an important topic that we have to have in this country because a lot of the time we face race-based political decisions and laws."
Jade Robinson, a fourth-year student at Dalhousie and a Sipekne'katik band member, is helping collect data.
"It means a lot for me in the sense that I can help and give back to my community by supporting them in their efforts to to exercise their treaty rights and also building capacity and relationships with science fields," she said.
The goal is for the band to conduct the study autonomously for at least three years. More than 3,000 lobsters have been sampled already, but Bailey said one season is not enough time to draw conclusions.
Robinson said it's important for community members to learn how to run the study because they have a unique perspective.
"You get to incorporate two-eyed seeing, like both the Western and Indigenous knowledge views and the coexistence of both," she said. "All of our cultural traditions and values are centred around coexisting with Mother Nature and not disturbing that balance of resources."
'Coming full circle'
The Sipekne'katik fishery operates in southwest Nova Scotia in what is known as Lobster Fishing Area (LFA) 33 and LFA 34. The commercial fishing window for these areas is the last Monday in November to May 31.
This year, Sipekne'katik fishers were on the water starting July 15; they plan to stop when the commercial season opens. This aligns with the traditional Mi'kmaw lobster fishing season.
"I think one of the misconceptions is that when the band is operating a fishery, there's no rules," Bailey said. "There's a fisheries management plan in place that has regulations in it. So just because the fishery is not operating under DFO regulations, there are still regulations and rules that need to be followed."
Bailey is referring to the band's 23-page Rights Implementation and Fishery Management Plan. It outlines how band members can safely and responsibly exercise their treaty rights to fish for a moderate livelihood.
The management plan is guided by the traditional Mi'kmaw principles of netukulimk, which the Sipekne'katik fisheries plan defines as "achieving and protecting adequate standards of community nutrition and economic well-being without jeopardizing the integrity, diversity, or productivity of our environment."
"Our people are quite proud to be playing that role, the role of stewards and protectors," said Maloney. "We were removed from the conservation, the stewardship role that we had since time immemorial. So this is coming full circle."
Fishery launched last year
In September 2020, the band launched its first moderate-livelihood fishery. The launch was opposed by some non-Indigenous commercial fishers and prompted violent confrontations, acts of intimidation and arson.
Some band members were arrested by DFO officers and had their traps confiscated and their catch released.
The main argument put forward against the Sipekne'katik fishery has been conservation, specifically, that fishing in the summer months would deplete the lobster stocks.
"The claims that you can't fish in the summer, I simply think that's not true," Bailey said. "You can fish in the summer or the fall, but you need to know what the impact of that fishery is."
Some commercial fishers also feared the livelihood fishery could be used as cover for larger-scale commercial fishing, a claim the Mi'kmaq reject.
The Sipekne'katik band says it is currently using 1,000 FSC tags, which amounts to three traps per community member who is an active fisher.
As of Dec. 31, 2020, there were 943 licensed commercial vessels in the LFA 34 area, with 375 to 400 traps per boat.
"Currently, with the level of fishing that's going on, there is no particular concern with the moderate-livelihood fishery," MacNeil said.
Maloney questioned why Sipekne'katik is expected to bear the brunt of the responsibility for conservation when the community accounts for less than one per cent of the total number of traps in LFA 34.
"If conservation is really an issue in this country, then the commercial users, which are licensed, privileged users, have to be managed in a better way before the Mi'kmaq," she said.
DFO declined to participate in study
The band approached DFO about participating in the conservation study in the spring of 2021.
"The department declined to participate in Dr. Bailey's catch-sampling project," a representative said in a statement emailed to CBC News.
"However, representatives from the regional science branch discussed DFO's lobster assessment research with Dr. Bailey and provided her with standard sampling methodologies and example data forms."
Bailey said since she has a science permit from DFO, there hasn't been any trouble out on the water so far. Under the permit, Sipekne'katik is obligated to share data with DFO on a continuing basis.
"As with any scientific study, Fisheries and Oceans Canada would require a scientific peer review to assess the quality and utility of the data," DFO said in its statement.
Bailey said it is up to Sipekne'katik to determine the review process, but she hopes the data can eventually lead to co-operation.
"There are these different levels of co-operation, and scientific co-operation is just one of them," she said. "So let's come together around the data and leave the politics out of it."
Robinson is also feeling positive about where the data will take the industry as a whole.
"I'm hoping. I really am," Robinson said. "Education is a great tool for a lot of things. And I think gathering data is really important. I think it will lead to change."
Maloney explained that what Sipekne'katik is doing is aimed at protecting the lobster stocks for everyone.
"When you see Indigenous peoples working to conserve species or working to protect water or forests and lands, it's for all of us. It's not just for seven generations of Mi'kmaq. This will benefit everyone," Maloney said.
"To me, that's real reconciliation."