Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack says his community is scaling back its food, social and ceremonial fishery scheduled for next week over safety reasons.
“We are holding off our bigger (moderate livelihood) treaty fishery until we have a bigger fleet there and we’re allowed to have protection there,” he said. “It’s a scaled-back fishery because of the dangers that are out there.”
The dangers include non-Indigenous fishers who attacked Mi’kmaw harvesters this past fall when Sipekne’katik members launched their moderate livelihood fishery.
DFO and the RCMP were heavily criticized for sitting back and watching non-Indigenous fishers attack Mi’kmaw harvesters when Sipekne’katik launched its moderate livelihood in September 2020. The results were lost traps, destruction of a lobster pound and the burning of a member’s van. Sack himself was attacked at a news conference.
On Thursday, Sack also said his community is scaling back plans for a lobster harvest after Ottawa threatened to pull traps that aren’t licensed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).
Sack told reporters that instead of pursuing a “moderate livelihood” fishery with up to 50 traps per boat, Sipekne’katik fishers will begin the season with a smaller food, social and ceremonial fishery.
In a phone interview later in the day, he said the ceremonial fishery in St. Marys Bay would involve about “four or five” lobster traps per person on the boat, adding that the fishery is expected to expand later in the year.
On April 22, the band announced that about 20 boats would fish out of Saulnierville, N.S., beginning in June, despite warnings from the federal government the traps would be seized.
Sack says the scaled-down fishery is authorized under food, social and ceremonial licences from the Fisheries Department, which permit a small catch, provided the harvest is for food and ceremonies.
The chief also says that fishers will be permitted by the band to sell a portion of their catch to pay for expenses and that the band plans to increase the catch later in the summer when more supporters are able to travel safely to the wharf in Saulnierville.
The chief said that currently, the risks of COVID-19 mean a limited number of supporters are able to travel to Saulnierville from the First Nation north of Halifax.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) wasn’t immediately available for comment about whether it would allow the revised plan to proceed without seizing traps.
Earlier in the day, Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said enforcement officers would be out “doing their job” if the First Nation proceeded with plans to return to St. Marys Bay next week without federal licences.
That comment came a few hours before the department returned about 100 previously seized traps to the band.
The Mi’kmaq First Nation has a treaty right to fish for a moderate livelihood — a phrase coined in 1999 when the Supreme Court affirmed that right in what is known as the Marshall Decision.
The court later clarified that ruling to say Ottawa could regulate the treaty right for conservation and other limited purposes, though it has to justify any infringements. Scientists say the lobster stocks are healthy and there are no concerns at the present time.
Jordan also said during a news conference in Lunenburg, N.S., that non-Indigenous fishers shouldn’t consider “taking the law into their own hands” once Sipekne’katik First Nation resumes fishing off southwestern Nova Scotia.
Since then, Jordan has noted her department has been unsuccessful in efforts to negotiate the distribution of commercial licences for Sipekne’katik within federally regulated fishing seasons.
She confirmed Thursday that during talks, Ottawa had offered the band access to Lobster Fishing Area 35, south of St. Marys Bay, which is considered one of the best lobster grounds in the province, but the band rejected the offer.
Sack has said the area is difficult for his community’s fleet of smaller boats to navigate.
With files from the Canadian Press