Mi'kmaq stay ashore as commercial lobster season opens in largest N.S. fishing area
Sipekne'katik fishers face loss of income as First Nation-owned commercial licences lay dormant
As the commercial inshore lobster fishing season begins in one of the largest and most lucrative fishing areas in Canada, Mi'kmaw fishers who'd typically be out on the water will remain ashore, looking for ways to make ends meet.
The fishing area LFA 34 on the southwest shore of Nova Scotia has been a national focal point since Sept. 17, when Sipekne'katik First Nation launched the first Mi'kmaw-regulated lobster fishery in Nova Scotia and triggered weeks of often violent opposition from non-Indigenous commercial fishery workers and their supporters.
The First Nation would typically operate under nine of the federally-approved commercial licences, but Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack said in November those licenses would not be fished in 2020, for fear of "continued retaliation, violence, property damage and systemic economic racism."
Sipekne'katik's self-regulated fishery, which was launched in phases to measure its scope and impact on the existing fisheries, is set to wind down in the coming weeks and halt completely by Dec. 17, according to band officials.
Lack of income will 'hit hard'
Mi'kmaw fisher Arvin Knockwood, of Sipekne'katik, has been fishing lobster for two years under the band's federally-regulated commercial licences, and since September under the Mi'kmaw-regulated licences. He said not having the income from the commercial season could make it a difficult winter and spring for his family.
"It's definitely going to hit me hard," he said.
"I won't get [employment insurance aid] for the spring and summer months. I won't get the actual money from commercial fishing. So, I'm basically just sitting around waiting for next year."
Knockwood, his fiancée and four children under the age of nine live in Sipekne'katik. His fiancée has a steady income which will allow the family to make ends meet but they've been looking for ways to supplement his lost earnings.
Anticipating the loss, Knockwood said he'd purchased Christmas gifts for his children in November.
"My kids are taken care of, so I'm happy about that anyway," he said.
Knockwood said the financial loss this season is easier to handle knowing the progress and attention the Mi'kmaq have earned since September through the assertion of their treaty right to fish and earn a living.
As well, he said, the money isn't worth the potential safety risks to Mi'kmaw fishers.
"Hopefully next year we can do commercial [fishing] and there'll be no problems, but I really don't know how next year is going to play out," he said.
Fishing now 'a big, daunting task'
Though the band has cited safety concerns for its sitting out the 2020 commercial season, it's not the only reason why Mi'kmaw fishers have been staying ashore lately.
Sipekne'katik fisher Jason Marr, who was trapped in a Middle West Pubnico, N.S., lobster pound by a mob of commercial fishermen days before it was burned to the ground, said his fishing has all but stopped because he can no longer afford to replace gear destroyed or taken by opposing fishers or the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
"The [commercial] fishermen are going to go fishing, they're going to catch their million dollars worth of lobster like they do every other year," he said.
"Geez, I wish I was capable of it ... but that's a very big, daunting task to consider."
Marr said he's unable to even calculate the value of the gear he's lost since September, given how frequently he and other Mi'kmaq have needed to source new, used and donated lobster traps, buoys and fishing line. Without being able to recoup costs by selling the catch, Marr said he's been stretched thin by fishing expenses.
"This is an ongoing thing," he said.
"You put 10 traps out, they take 10 traps. You put 10 out, they take 10."
Marr believes he's had Mi'kmaw-regulated traps seized recently by DFO, though he said they have not contacted him to confirm it. Having fished lobster in the area for over two decades, Marr said he sees a pattern of mistreatment toward Mi'kmaw fishers by DFO, non-Indigenous fishers and fishing service providers.
"Wear [the Mi'kmaq] down. That's a very old tactic," he said.
"That's what they do. They've exhausted me, and I'm one of the resourceful ones."
Marr said he's frustrated that, despite a renewed push to assert his nation's treaty right and the potential for dramatic change, Mi'kmaw fishermen are still struggling to make a living as a result of opposition.
"I can't speak for [other Mi'kmaw fishers], but this year is the most lobster traps I've ever fished. I've never fished more than 50 at one given time. That's a big deal for us."
'We definitely don't want trouble'
Some maintain that it's not worth the risk right now for Mi'kmaq to fish with their typically modest vessels for modest earnings.
The rest of LFA 34 reaches for hundreds of kilometres around the southwest part of Nova Scotia. Mi'kmaw boat captain Jerry Augustine of Sipekne'katik said the size of the Mi'kmaw fleet is so small compared the non-Indigenous commercial fishery, some of the fishers wouldn't be comfortable being isolated among them. He said the Mi'kmaq are constantly keeping an eye on each other, which has been essential to their success.
"When we're fishing moderate livelihood, we're only here in [St. Mary's] bay," he said.
"If anybody gets into trouble, it's not much to jump on another [Mi'kmaw] boat ...but we don't think anyone else will help us if we break down out there. That's a big factor. Nobody wants to get hurt."
Augustine said he's fished his moderate livelihood licence in St. Mary's Bay relatively unnoticed by opposing fishermen lately. It's been one benefit from the commercial season drawing near, he said.
"We definitely don't want trouble," Augustine said.
"We don't want to worry about Christmas either. I'm sure that's what every other commercial fisherman is [saying]; they're going to take care of Christmas. Well, a lot of our guys want to take care of Christmas, too."