N.S. First Nation, Ottawa nearing deal on lobster fishing rights

N.S. First Nation, Ottawa nearing deal on lobster fishing rights

More than two months after a Nova Scotia First Nation launched a lobster fishery that has reignited a longstanding debate about fishing rights and regulations, the band says Ottawa has proposed a draft agreement that stands to be “a historic recognition” of their treaty rights.

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack said the band received a draft memorandum of understanding Friday night from the office of federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan.

The First Nation has declined to share the entire contents of the memorandum, but Sack said the most important piece, for him, is that the document supports his community to harvest and sell its catch.

“We were pushing for that all along … I think it’s a pretty big step forward,” Sack told reporters Sunday at the Saulnierville wharf in southwest Nova Scotia.

Sipkene’katik Chief Mike Sack says the potential agreement with Ottawa could be a ‘historic recognition’ of treaty rights. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Sipekne’katik fishers have been operating out of the Saulnierville wharf on St. Marys Bay since Sept. 17, when the band launched its so-called moderate livelihood fishery. It was the first Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw band to do so, but several others have followed suit.

Sipekne’katik now stands to be the first Mi’kmaw band to strike a deal with Ottawa. At issue is how a moderate livelihood fishery should be defined, and whether and how it should be regulated by the Canadian government. 

The Marshall decision

The band argues that it has a right to operate a self-regulated fishery based on the Peace and Friendship treaties of the 18th century.

Those rights were upheld in a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada ruling known as the Marshall decision. But a subsequent ruling from the court said the fishery could be subject to federal regulation, if justified by issues of conservation.

More than two decades after the rulings, the implementation of those treaty rights remains a subject of debate. Sipekne’katik’s potential agreement with the federal government could bring some clarity to the issue.

Sack said the band’s lawyers are currently reviewing the draft memorandum and will be meeting with federal officials Monday to continue the discussion. 

Jordan’s office also declined to share any details of the agreement, but confirmed it was before the band.

“While there is still more work ahead of us, we are making progress together,” a spokesperson said via email. 

Sipekne’katik First Nation has been issuing licences and lobster trap tags to Mi’kmaw harvesters under the new self-regulated fishery since Sept. 17. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

News of the budding agreement comes a week after DFO officers seized hundreds of traps from the water of St. Marys Bay, alleging a variety of violations.

At the time, Sack said many of the seized traps belonged to Sipekne’katik fishers, and he argued they were taken unjustly. 

It was the first confirmed instance of DFO intervening in Sipekne’katik’s new operation, but the band has accused commercial fishermen of seizing traps and destroying fishing gear since the beginning of the moderate livelihood fishery.

Many non-Indigenous fishermen have been critical of the rights-based fishery in St. Marys Bay because they say the First Nation is putting the entire industry at risk of decline and possible collapse by harvesting outside the federally regulated fishing season. 

The dispute has sparked many tense and sometimes violent interactions on the shores of southwest Nova Scotia over the past two months.

The commercial fishing season in part of southwest Nova Scotia — the lucrative lobster fishing area LFA 34 — was supposed to launch on Monday, but it has been delayed due to a poor weather forecast.

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Neighbouring LFA 33 is still expected to launch on Monday.

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