As It Happens·Q&A

Mi'kmaw lobster fishery 'doesn't pose any conservation risk,' says prof

The Mi’kmaw lobster fishery in Nova Scotia has commercial operators concerned about the species, but the director of Saint Mary’s University’s School of the Environment says the Indigenous haul will be too small to do any real damage.

Tony Charles says the offshore lobster industry is the 'elephant in the room' in the N.S. fishery dispute

After decades of differing opinions and debate on First Nations’ right to earn a 'moderate livelihood' while fishing, affirmed by a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1999, a Mi’kmaw community in Nova Scotia has launched its own Mi’kmaq-regulated, rights-based lobster fishery. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Mi'kmaw lobster fishery in Nova Scotia has commercial operators concerned about the fate of the species, but a fisheries management expert says the Indigenous haul will be too small to do any real damage. 

The dispute turned violent last week when hundreds of commercial fisherman stormed two lobster pounds where the Mi'kmaq were keeping their catch. Days later, one of those facilities was burned to the ground. A man who sustained life-threatening injuries is a person of interest in the case, police said. 

The Sipekne'katik First Nation launched the self-regulated fishery this year on the anniversary a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Mi'kmaw treaty right to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing.

Commercial fishery workers say it should not operate outside the federally mandated commercial season. One former fisherman's union head recently told As It Happens he fears there will be "nothing left for us to fish in St. Mary's Bay."

But Tony Charles says that's not likely. He's the acting director of the School of the Environment at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, and has experience in fisheries management. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Professor Charles, does the Mi'kmaw lobster fishery represent a threat to lobster stocks?

At the moment, the fishery, the moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia, is absolutely a tiny, tiny fraction of the regular, conventional commercial fishery. And so, at the moment, there really isn't an issue of conservation.

It's, I think, a bit of a shock to some non-Indigenous fishery people that the fishing is taking place outside the fishing times that they and the government had set years ago. But even that, with a small level of fishing that we have at the moment, that doesn't pose any conservation risk.

Can you give us a quick snapshot about the numbers of traps the Mi'kmaq are putting out in this operation they've got going compared to what the regular operation is doing?

In very rough terms, it could be about one per cent of the conventional commercial number of traps. And, of course, traps are the key element that fishers use and that the fisheries manage with. So if you keep the traps to a sustainable level, and keep the fishing activity to a sustainable level, then there's no particular problem.

A woman holds two lobsters as Cheryl Maloney, a member of the Sipekne'katik First Nation, sells them outside the legislature in Halifax on Friday, Oct. 16. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The commercial fishermen are concerned that this is the beginning and that eventually there'll be more Indigenous communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that will hand out these licenses as well, and then it won't be such a small percentage, will it?

You might think that this is like the Kim's Convenience of fisheries. These are really small operations. And hopefully, they will expand over time.

I think it's very true, and my Mi'kmaw colleagues and my non-Indigenous colleagues would all agree, that as this fishery expands, as I expect it will do over the course of a few years, that there's going to have to be some conservation measures that come in and some reduction in traps by [the] non-Indigenous fishery. 

So you're saying that part of the negotiations that the government is now having with the Mi'kmaq, with the Indigenous fishermen, is that they're going to have to look at taking some of the licenses away from the commercial fishermen and giving them to the Indigenous ones?

Handing licenses around was an approach that was used 20 years ago by the government. I think there might be some move — and I'm hearing this from both my Indigenous fishery colleagues and non-Indigenous fishers — that there's a lot of talk about a different approach this time that might involve finding a way for all the non-Indigenous fishers to reduce down the number of traps each one uses so that licenses aren't shifting, but traps are shifting in a sense.

It would have to be done carefully and with real science behind it to make sure that conservation is kept at the forefront, but that is a possibility.

You can imagine what that, though, represents to the non-Indigenous fishermen in those communities where they have seen the cod fishery disappear because of bad practices, not on their part, and that they are now faced with the possibility of this one area of fishing that seems to still work for them, that's lucrative in Nova Scotia, saying, "Well, you're going to have to give up part of that." How do you think that will go down?

It's a difficult challenge. And, you know, this really shouldn't be kept as only a fishery topic, because other sectors of the economy really need some Indigenous involvement being built up as well.

I think that we need to be recognizing that reconciliation means something, and so there's going to be some shifting. 

And I've got to say there are a lot of wonderful non-Indigenous fishers out there, and unfortunately, the violence, the mobs, the racism has been a really terrible thing that we've seen here in Nova Scotia. But I think that there's many level heads in the non-Indigenous fishery that are going to look at this and they're going to find ways to make it happen.

It has to be a case where the Mi'kmaq figure out what they're looking for in their fisheries, their moderate livelihood fisheries, and then the government, with the non-Indigenous fishery, has to figure out how to adjust themselves so that conservation is assured in the whole process.

Tony Charles is a professor at the School of the Environment and the School of Business at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. (Paul Darrow)

[The commercial fisherman] believe that the Indigenous, the Mi'kmaw fishery, is using bad practices, that they're fishing during the molting season when the lobsters are breeding, and that this is not good for the for the stock. Does that concern you?

I understand how the non-Indigenous fishers are accustomed to their season limits. And they've kept those over the years, and I really appreciate their conservation spirit on that. But it's not going to be a problem if there's a small amount of fishing in other times of the year that isn't the commercial sector. It's a moderate livelihood approach, so it's a very small bit of it.

One of the most wonderful things that I've seen in this whole process in the last few weeks is that every First Nation that's developing their new fishery has beforehand developed a management plan that is really sophisticated and builds on the Indigenous ways of conservation. So I have every confidence that those fisheries are going to be very conservationist.

One other area that's not been discussed in this [is] the offshore corporate lobster fishery. And we have one company, Clearwater, which has a monopoly out there, and it seems to be untouched by these discussions. Does it seem to some [degree] that the inshore lobster fishermen are fighting over the scraps while the corporate offshore lobster industry is feasting on the banquet?

I think that's the elephant in the room that needs to be really looked at.

To increase the First Nation involvement in the lobster fishery, taking on more of the offshore part of the fishery would be one way to do it that avoids any kind of trade-offs in the coastal areas.

Now, it's a different kind of fishery. Being further from shore, it requires bigger boats and it's not the same kind of family operation, you know, that the coastal fishery is.

But it's still something that we've seen in New Zealand that when … a court case recognized [the Maori] access to the fishery, they took on some of the offshore fishery, and that's done very well for them. So that's certainly an avenue that should be explored more.

The government seems to be reluctant to take on Clearwater and its monopoly, even though it's been convicted of gross violations of regulations. Do you think that the government is willing to approach that elephant in the room?

It's a good point that you note that that they've been seen to be not very conservationists themselves.

As for the government … both Indigenous and non-Indigenous and many researchers like myself, we are looking closely at what the federal government is doing and wanting to ensure that at the end of the day, the fishery and the coastal communities all around the Maritime provinces are kept healthy.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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