Mi’kmaw fishers say eels are smaller in size and numbers

Mi’kmaw fishers are ice fishing for eels, a traditional dish used in ceremony.

But the tradition may be at risk, they say the catch is not as good as in previous seasons.

A.J. Francis, and his uncle, Durney Nicholas, both commercial fishermen, hunt and fish during the off-season, together for as long as they can remember.

Francis has noticed a decline in the eels, in size and numbers.

“Over time, like we used to get a lot of big eels, easy to get plentiful and over the years they are kind of declining a little bit and it’s harder, fewer, and fewer bigger ones and I just noticed that myself over the years,” says Francis.

Nicholas taught by his elders, uses a traditional spear.

The spear is about 14 feet long, with prongs at the ends to hook the eels. It reaches the bottom of the harbour where the American Eels, Ka’t in Mi’kmaw,  are nestled.

“Go around again, then you move up a bit and further and further away, then you finish and then you for in the next hole, you make one, and just like that all day,” says Nicholas.

Nicholas hooks an eel, but it is too small, he releases it back into the water.

An American Eel can take 20 years to reach maturity.

Nicholas and Francis icefish on the Antigonish Harbour, about 200 kilometres northeast of Halifax, and about an hours drive north of their community, Pictou Landing First Nation.

“When we hunt and fish in the off-season, it’s not really for money, just for our way of life and keeping our traditions alive, hunting and fishing,” says Francis.

Back at Nicholas’ shed, the eels are gutted and skinned.

“I’m going to salt it and tan it and I’ll make something out of it,” says Nichols.

The skin is strong, enough to support a broken bone.

“Long time ago they would make like if someone had a broken arm or leg, they wrap around just like a strong, like a cast,”

The meat can be baked, fried, or boiled, and it does not taste like fish, chicken, or beef, Nicholas says it cannot be explained.

A tradition Nicholas and Francis hope is not at risk.

According to the federal government, the American Eel was listed as a species at risk in 2012 as a result of pollution, habitat disruption such as dams, and existing fisheries.

The last federal report was in 2019, but the status of the stocks was inconclusive due to a lack of data.

The communications advisor, Steve Hachey, of Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, said in an email the speeches is not currently listed under the Species at Risk Act, and,

“While the reported abundances in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence have been relatively stable, sharp declines in many areas of the species’ historic range are still of concern.”

Meanwhile, Nicholas and Francis will keep feeling and hunting, until the commercial fishery starts in the spring.

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