The sight of fisheries department boats ramming Mi'Kmaq fishers in Miramichi Bay two weeks back reminded Canadians how tenuous is the peace between First Nations and white authority. NFisheries minister Herb Dhaliwal has told all who'll listen that he's acting to protect lobster stocks from illegal poaching. But the fact is, more and more experts are now declaring that there is no sustainability issue at Burnt Church and that federal swoops on the Mi'Kmaq traps are simply raw bids for power.
"From a conservation perspective, there's nothing that would suggest that the Mi'Kmaq would be threatening the lobster stocks," insists David Coon of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.
"They are basically adopting all the conservation measures that commercial inshore fishermen have used for years."
That's the view of Ransom Myers, Killam chair in ocean studies at the department of biology at Dalhousie University and a former research scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Simple system "The first question is, how are lobsters managed worldwide? They're all managed the same way -- primarily by not fishing until they reach a certain size, and protecting egg-bearing females. It's a simple management system that works."
The Esgenoopetitj Mi'KMaq are doing that, he says. What they're doing that's different is fishing in the fall season. "But that's an allocation system, and not primarily a conservation issue," he insists.
If there isn't an impending ecological disaster on Miramichi Bay, what are the feds trying to pull off? The "clarification" of the Marshall Supreme Court decision allows the feds to restrict natives' traditional right to fish only if justified on "conservation or other grounds."
Such grounds are rapidly evaporating, all the more so since Burnt Church leaders say the native community has worked hard to develop its own fisheries management.
It has chosen this option over a deal with the feds signed by 29 other native bands in Atlantic Canada who acquired as much as $22 million each in exchange for yielding control to the DFO over where and how much they can fish. This despite warnings from the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs about the possible ramifications such agreements may have on future treaty negotiations.
Lloyd Augustine of the clan council in Burnt Church tells NOW, "Our philosophy is that what we have or see or taste is something that has to be shared with the seven generations yet unborn, so with that kind of thinking we always try to find ways to conserve."
Augustine notes that traditional native fishing activities are divided into two seasons, spring and fall. "We collect only what is needed and essential for the community. Federal policy is based in economics, not conservation. Non-natives, if given the choice, would deplete the stock until nothing is left"-- precisely what he says has happened with the salmon and cod stocks.
At the DFO, director for eastern New Brunswick Bob Allain says his department is only trying to remove traps that have no official DFO tags and to verify that native traps meet official conservation guidelines.
Tiny minority There are, he says, 700 lobster licences valid for zone 23, and only 200 of these are for Miramichi Bay proper. Of these, 180 belong to non-natives and 20 are for natives. (Each licence represents some few hundred traps varying by place and season.)
Any extra traps being set by natives, admits Allain, represent a tiny minority of the total traps in the area. But he insists there are valid conservation issues involved in fall fishing. "There is a higher percentage of larger 'market' lobsters taken, and a higher percentage of those are females, so the conservation argument is precautionary management on our part because the last thing you want is a high percentage of females harvested."
Allain says he understands the frustration non-native fishers are feeling toward Esgenoopetitj.
"These people have bills to pay and arguably say, 'I'm 25 years old and I'm carrying a $250,000 debt -- that's what it costs by the time you buy your boat and licences. That's a heavy debt to carry."
Still, the analysis performed by the Conservation Council's Coon and other experts suggests that running a fishery centrally is actually less effective than community-based approaches to management, where communities have greater authority over the adjacent resources that are their lifeblood. Certainly, the case of cod depletion suggests that the department has no monopoly on good sense.
"A community-based approach is what Burnt Church is trying, and unfortunately, the minister is not willing to discuss their community management plan," says Coon. "Community management is something we have been exploring with non-native fisherman for years now."
Arthur Bull, coodinator of the Bay of Fundy Fishermen's Association, agrees. "We've been trying to do community-based management of the groundfish fishery -- cod, haddock, etc -- in this area since 1996.
"We put a proposal to the DFO about three years ago to take a larger degree of responsibility of the fisheries here. That was rejected." This only highlights, many say, the DFO's unwillingness to consider shedding any of its control over the fishery.
Bull notes that the effort to manage fishing within the community stemmed from a reaction to corporatization of the industry.
"The federal fisheries policy has been based on privatization and corporatization for the last couple of decades. In real life this means very intensive concentration of ownership, which is very destructive from the point of view of the resource, because people are fishing on the basis of return for investment."
The lobster fishery, Bull notes, represents the last successful in-shore fleet of independent owner-operators. "Inshore fishermen are basically slated for extinction -- the feds want to see the end of the in-shore fishery. They want a corporate fishery here where they can have a handful of companies. On the basis of property rights, the communities have lost a huge amount, and have more in common with the First Nations than anyone else."
Distinct contrast Ironically, the standoff at Burnt Church has developed in distinct contrast to the situation where Bull lives, in the St. Mary's Bay area of Nova Scotia, where local bands and non-native fishers have defied Ottawa to develop their own joint management plan.
The real tragedy in the Burnt Church situation, says Bull, is that the dispute is taking place between natural allies whose food fishery activities go back centuries.
"The Mi'Kmaq taught the Acadians how to fish, and took them into the woods, protected them when the British expelled them. People who live in these places should work together on this."
FISHING TRAP FISHING TRAP
Number of licences for lobster fishing in New Brunswick: 1,592
Number of lobster licences belonging to commercial non-native fishers: 1,514
Number of lobster licences belonging to native bands: 78
Number of lobster licenses valid for Miramichi Bay: 200
Number of those that belong to non-natives: 180
Number belonging to natives: 20