Ottawa issues reminder and warning about First Nations fishing rights

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The federal Fisheries Department issued a reminder on Monday that First Nations have the right to fish for certain limited purposes outside federally regulated fishing seasons, adding that hefty fines await those who prevent them from exercising that right.

Officials with the Fisheries Department made the comments during a technical briefing with reporters about the Indigenous-run fisheries that have been launched across the Atlantic region for food, social and ceremonial purposes. People who participate in those fisheries, however, are not permitted to sell their catch.

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Some Indigenous-run fisheries have led to tensions over the past two years, as non-Indigenous commercial fishers have complained that the fisheries are operating without proper licensing or threatening the health of fish stocks.

There have been a number of incidents in southwestern Nova Scotia involving an Indigenous-run lobster fishery in the St. Marys Bay area. Federal officials have seized lobster traps from members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, and a lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., at the centre of a dispute over Indigenous fishing rights, was ransacked and later burned in October 2020.

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The Sipekne’katik food, social and ceremonial lobster fishery is expected to begin operating later this month.

Tim Kerr, director of conservation and protection with the Fisheries Department, told reporters that officers are being proactive with inspections of vessels and gear to ensure that Indigenous fishers are following regulations and that stocks are protected.

“We have a number of tactics we can use such as on-water inspections of fishing vessels and gear such as lobster traps, inspections on the wharf of vessels and gear, and inspections of holding facilities or processing plants,” Kerr said.

Kerr also warned that any destruction of gear or interference with a lawful food, social and ceremonial fishery could result in fines up to $100,000 and other penalties.

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On April 6, two people from southwest Nova Scotia were ordered to pay $55,000 for purchasing and selling fish caught under food, social and ceremonial licences. On May 31, an individual and a company based in northeast New Brunswick were each ordered to pay a fine of $25,000 for purchasing and selling fish caught and retained under those types of licences.

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Kerr said investigations are underway in a number of other cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2022.

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