The federal Fisheries Department says data gathered from a Nova Scotia bay where a self-regulated Mi’kmaq lobster fishery has been recently launched shows a decrease in the catch in recent years.
However, the department also says there has been catch decline elsewhere in the region and it isn’t tying the fall in St. Marys Bay between 2016 and 2019 to previous Indigenous fishing efforts.
The Sipekne’katik First Nation launched a fishery in the bay last month, based on a 1999 court ruling stating East Coast Indigenous nations have the right to earn a “moderate livelihood” from fishing.
The fishery is criticized by some non-Indigenous fishers, who point to a clarification of the Supreme Court decision that says the federal Fisheries Department remains the industry regulator, based on conservation needs and in consultation with First Nations.
The data provided Wednesday shows the lobster catch in the bay fell from 1,691 tonnes to 915 tonnes over the three-year period, a decrease of 46 per cent. At the same time, the number of commercial vessels fishing the bay dropped to 76 from 95.
The department says the data for the 2016-17 seasons onward is preliminary and subject to change, and the data for the 2019-2020 season is not included due to incomplete data.
Colin Sproul, president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said the greatest change has been the increase of fishing in the summer months in the bay outside of the federally regulated season.
“There’s a precipitous drop in St. Marys Bay,” he said. He called the bay “a mecca for lobster” and said if the lobster are not present at the beginning of the season when fishers outside the bay are enjoying great catches, it’s a sign that something’s wrong.
Sproul said Federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan needs to hear more from the inshore fishers about their concerns, informed by multiple generations of observing the stocks.
Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne’katik First Nation said in an interview said there is no evidence the small moderate livelihood fishery, with its current licensing of 10 vessels and 50 traps each, is hurting lobster stocks.
“We all understand the life cycle of the species must be properly managed,” the chief said in an interview. “Our people aren’t taking much at all. We’re a couple of per cent of what’s coming out.”
In addition, he noted that for safety reasons his community’s fishers have had to concentrate in St. Marys Bay, rather than spreading their efforts over the wider area along the southwest coast.
Megan Bailey, a professor in Dalhousie University’s marine affairs program, notes in recent years there has been a significant food, social and ceremonial fishery in the bay.
This Indigenous fishery stems from a separate Supreme Court of Canada decision that recognized the Mi’kmaq right to fish for their own needs but not to sell or barter the catch. Like the moderate livelihood fishery now underway, it occurs outside of the federally regulated season.
“Some First Nations individuals were using their food, social, ceremonial (fishing) tags to earn a moderate livelihood. That’s not legal,” said Bailey, who is the Canada Research Chair in Integrated Ocean and Coastal Governance at Dalhousie.
However, she said she has not seen data to suggest the short-term drop in St. Marys Bay is due to the added Indigenous fisheries.
She said the food fishery, the livelihood fishery and the commercial fishery all depend on the same population of lobster. “So we need to look at those fisheries together and ask ‘Together are these fisheries a conservation concern?”‘ she said.
Still, Sproul said he believes the data is increasingly suggesting the drop in catch in St. Marys Bay is linked to fisheries occurring outside of the federally regulated season. “The way to deal with this is to ban out-of-season fishing,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2020.