Lennox Island treaty lobster fishery gets underway without government approval

Treaty fishers set out following a ceremony at the island's harbour on Saturday morning, a week after the First Nation announced it would launch its treaty lobster fishery without authorization from the federal government.

240 traps to be set on Saturday, which is a smaller number than originally planned

Treaty fishers set out following a ceremony at Lennox Island's harbour on Saturday morning, a week after the First Nation announced it would launch its treaty lobster fishery without authorization from the federal government. (Tony Davis/CBC)

The Lennox Island First Nation lobster treaty fishery launched Saturday.

Treaty fishers set out following a morning ceremony at the island's harbour, a week after the P.E.I. First Nation announced it would launch a moderate living fishery without authorization from the federal government.

The initial plan was to set 1,000 lobster traps during the first day of the fishery. But Chief Darlene Bernard said they had to lower that target because some of the fishers did not have enough time to prepare.

"We did have some issues with trying to launch a couple of our larger boats, and it was the boat hauler [who] wasn't comfortable to launch our boats because I think there were suggestions that if he did that he wouldn't launch another non-Indigenous boat," she said.

"I don't want to get upset over that. But you know, if there is an issue, then we'll deal with that by getting our own boat hauler and doing our own hauling of boats ... We're not here to cause problems."

The decision to launch the fishery without the government's authorization follows two years of negotiations between Lennox Island and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that broke down last week.

A traditional ceremony was held before the boats set out. (CBC/Brian Higgins)

The First Nation has a right to harvest lobster for a moderate livelihood without the government's approval as per the Supreme Court's 1999 Marshall ruling, though in a rare clarification the court did determine that Ottawa could still regulate Mi'kmaw fishers if there were justifiable concerns about conservation and there were consultations with Indigenous groups.

A few RCMP patrol cars were stationed near the harbour during the launch. DFO has said the fishery is unauthorized and may be subject to enforcement action, which could mean trap seizures or fines.

In a statement Saturday, DFO said it has been engaged in discussions with the community with the goal of reaching an "interim understanding that would see Lennox Island First Nation conduct an authorized moderate livelihood fishery within the established season this spring."

Abegweit First Nation, the Island's other First Nation band, is still in discussions with DFO. Abegweit Chief Junior Gould said last week the community won't follow Lennox Island's decision and that it isn't launching a treaty fishery this year.

Smooth sailing

In the water, a fisherman stands in a dory full of lobster traps.
A dory was one of two treaty-approved boats which left the Lennox Island harbour on Saturday. (CBC/Brian Higgins)

Bernard previously told CBC News that if there was any violence in the water aimed at treaty fishers, the band will consider DFO responsible.

At the launch, she said there have been no issues with non-Indigenous fishers so far and that most people have been supportive. Bernard said she has also previously been in talks with the P.E.I. Fishermen's Association.

"I explained to them, gave them all the details of the plan. And I don't think anybody sitting in the room could really say it was unreasonable," she said.

"Certainly there's frustration ... but our rights are not contingent on that, right? Our rights are here. We have the right to a treaty fishery, and we're going to exercise that right."

"It seems to be smooth sailing for everybody so far," said Blake Bernard of the First Nations Guardians, an environmental stewardship program in place across many Indigenous communities in Canada.

The Lennox Island program started earlier this year in order to monitor the treaty fishery.

"We went out there, did a few rounds just to make sure everything was good. Seems a federal fisheries officer is out at ... Low Point. Other than that, it seems to be good."

Two treaty-protected vessels left the harbour on Saturday. One of them was a 45-foot lobster boat which is operated by three people.

"Feels pretty good, you know, fishing for our rights," said Thunder Augustine, one of the boat's crew. Augustine fishes commercially but is now doing livelihood fishing for the first time.

"Feels good to be back on the water for the first time [as treaty fisher]. Here to make some money, and that's about it."

'Symbolic gesture'

Lennox Island Chief Darlene Bernard. (Tony Davis/CBC)

The treaty fishery's current management plan includes:

  • A maximum of 1,000 traps being put out for the year, 100 or fewer per individual.

  • A timeframe that falls within the commercial season, using the community's own wharf and infrastructure.

  • Respect for DFO rules with regard to trap size and conservation measures.

Bernard said they won't fish on Sundays.

In post on the band office's Facebook page, Bernard said the treaty fishery does not meet Lennox Island's needs, but the launch was more of a "symbolic gesture" to show how long the First Nation has waited to get their rights implemented.

She said DFO should grant the community more commercial licenses. Lennox Island currently has 30 boats in its commercial fleet, with over 7,000 traps. 

"It's more or less saying to DFO, 'You've had 20 years, more than two decades to deal with a treaty protected fishery, and you haven't, but we need to deal with it, because we need to have access to this resource,'" she said. 

"It's for the betterment of our community and it's to provide livelihoods to our young people and their families. They're fisher people. They want to be involved in the industry just like other fisher people. And I think that there's space, and if there's no space then it needs to be created."

Kirsten Fisher-Compton and her child, Liam, looking at the boats as they leave the harbour. (CBC/Brian Higgins)

Kirsten Fisher-Compton was at the wharf with her son, Liam, to wish good luck to the child's father, Noah Day.

Day set out on his own in the second treaty-protected vessel: a small dory.

Fisher-Compton said her husband just wanted to be part of the fishery, and the little boat was all he had to work with.

"It's a little nerve-racking seeing him go out in such a small boat, but hope he has a good season and hope it all goes well," she said.

"I'm feeling proud. It's pretty nice to see that they're taking action and they're taking back their rights."


  • A previous version of this story said the treaty fishery is not conducted on Sundays and Wednesdays. Information provided by the band on Sunday clarified that they do indeed fish on Wednesdays.
    May 08, 2022 10:48 AM AT

With files from Tony Davis and Brian Higgins