Harvesters with the Sipekne’katik First Nation in Nova Scotia dropped lobster traps in waters in the Annapolis Basin and sold their catch on the wharf in Digby Thursday to make a point they have a treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from catching and selling lobster.
The Sipekne’katik chief and council and several community members joined the harvesters to show their support and solidarity to their fellow band members who, the leaders say, are being harassed by fishery officers with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“We’re here to exercise our rights and to support our local fisher people from our community,” Chief Michael Sack said. “There’s been a lot of dangerous activities going on and harassment (of) our people so we’re just showing support,” he said.
“They were out fishing the other day and there were DFO officers who were, kind of, (doing) scare tactics, trying to scare them off the water,” Chief Sack explained.
Harvesters loaded lobster traps and gear onto the band-owned boat, The Treaty Defender, late Thursday morning. The crew then headed out to drop 15 traps in waters not far from the shoreline in the Annapolis Basin.
The crew returned to the wharf in Digby an hour later with two crates filled with live lobster to sell.
“We’re allowed to sell it. We’re going to sell it. We have people to support at home and that’s what we’re going to do,” Chief Sack said.
In a letter to the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada Jonathan Wilkinson dated Oct. 1, Chief Sack informed the department of plans to harvest lobster on Oct. 3.
“We intend to exercise these rights with due regard for the conservation of the resource in order to ensure the sustainability of our pursuit of a livelihood. Our catch will be a tiny fraction of the overall lobster harvest and a just and equitable sharing of this resource,” he wrote.
Guardians aboard a zodiac boat accompanied the band’s fishing boat as crew members set lobster traps.
“We have our own guardian program just to ensure safety and that we follow our own rules in conservation management and safety for our people (who are) fishing,” Chief Sack explained.
Mi’kmaw harvesters say DFO seized lobster traps and gear
Since August, Mi’kmaw harvesters from several First Nation communities in Nova Scotia have been setting lobster traps in St. Mary’s Bay off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia. The area is part of DFO’s lobster fishing areas 34 and 35. Both areas are currently closed for commercial lobster fishing until later this fall.
The harvesters have been tagging their traps with personal identification and other information to inform DFO fishery officers that they’re exercising their treaty right to pursue a moderate livelihood fishery. Despite that, several harvesters say DFO officers have been seizing their traps and fishing gear but they’re not being charged.
Sipekne’katik harvester Leon Knockwood told Ku’ku’kwes News that fishery officers seized his lobster traps, gear and his father’s pickup truck in Nov. 2018. He was charged several months later with commercial fishery violations.
Knockwood is currently fighting the charges. He has a court appearance scheduled in mid-November in Digby Provincial Court.
Alex McDonald, who has had his share of confrontations with DFO officers in the past 20 years, was among several community members who came out to show his support for his fellow Mi’kmaw harvesters.
“It’s the greatest thing. It’s awesome that they did this today. I’m happy,” McDonald said.
McDonald was one of four Mi’kmaw harvesters charged with illegal fishing in St. Mary’s Bay in Sept. 2015. The charges against them were later withdrawn after a one-day trial was held in Digby in Feb. 2018. The harvesters had used their treaty right to fish to earn a moderate livelihood as a defence against the charges.
McDonald and the three other harvesters are currently suing DFO for damages and loss of income for charging them.
Sipekne’katik is the second First Nation in Atlantic Canada to announce their plans to practice their treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood by catching and selling lobster. On Sept. 23, the Listuguj Mi’gmaq Government in Quebec announced it would exercise its treaty right to a moderate livelihood fishery by setting lobster traps in Chaleur Bay and sell a portion of its catch to offset costs.
In an email response, a DFO spokeswoman wrote that the department has been working with the Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik to implement the treaty right to fish to earn a moderate livelihood at “Rights Reconciliation Agreement negotiation tables.”
“The Department works wth all harvesters to promote compliance with the Fisheries Act and its associated regulations, and to ensure that Indigenous fishing rights are respected,” Debbie Buott-Matheson wrote.
“Negotiating these agreements takes time and DFO looks forward to working in partnership with Indigenous communities on a stable, long-term approach,” she added.
Meanwhile, Chief Sack said he and his fellow councillors will continue to support Mi’kmaw harvesters from his community in their fishing activities.
“Our community is very treaty-oriented. We’re here to support that and fight all the way,” Chief Sack said.