Ottawa imposes strict fishing limit on reserves

The Calgary Herald
Monday, October 11, 1999

OTTAWA. Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal has imposed strict limits on two native bands that have refused to join a voluntary moratorium on lobster fishing as tension gripped the wharfs of Atlantic Canada.

Hoping to end weeks of ugly confrontations between native and white fishers, Dhaliwal announced Sunday that the voluntary moratorium agreed to by 33 native bands will be enforced by Fisheries and Oceans.

Native fishers from the two reserves that have rejected the moratorium, in Burnt Church and Indian Brook, will face tough federal controls.

Natives from those two reserves will be allowed to continue fishing until the end of the month with a total of 1,400 tagged lobster traps.

Atlantic Canada's 6,000 licensed lobster fishers use about 375 traps each, meaning the two native bands have been handed the equivalent of four lobster licences.

The measures, Dhaliwal told reporters, ''achieve my objectives for conservation and the need for a regulated fishery and represent the most prudent course of action in the current circumstances. ''

Dhaliwal is convinced his long-awaited proposal will end the strife that has gripped Atlantic fishing communities since the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that natives there have the right to fish without licences.

''I am fully confident that what I am putting out there will be supported by most of the people involved,'' he said.

However, native fishers in Burnt Church reacted with anger to the controls, raising the spectre of new confrontation with federal enforcement officials.

Fisherman Alfred Sanipass said the 600 lobster traps offered to the 1,200 people who live on the Burnt Church reserve could only support two or three families. He vowed to ignore the limits when he goes on to the water today and he expected others to do the same.

''I think they'll tell Fisheries people to go away,'' said Sanipass, 49.

''We have the right to fish according to the Supreme Court and no one can stop us.''

A spokesman for the Burnt Church band council called the federal proposal ''an insult.'' Fishers from the reserve are now working 775 lobster pots and more have been ordered.

''We're going to continue fishing because we have the right to do so,'' said Alex Dedam. ''The minister has not come up with an approach that's acceptable to us.''

For his part, Dhaliwal said Ottawa is prepared to enforce the law. ''At the end of the day, I have a mandate to regulate the fishery,'' he said.

The announcement follows three weeks of discord and violence in Maritime communities between native fishers and commercial lobster fishers who have paid up to $250,000 for their licences.

The Burnt Church reserve in northeast New Brunswick has been at the centre of the dispute.

Commercial fishers there have smashed native lobster pots and pulled thousands more from the water; three fish plants, suspected of buying native-caught lobster, have been vandalized.

Licensed fishers, most of whom cannot put their traps in the water until spring, have argued that an unregulated native fishery threatens the health of local lobster stocks.

But native fishers contend that they've been unfairly kept out of the fishery for generations. They view the court-sanctioned right to fish as their best chance to escape the poverty of reserves such as Burnt Church where nine out of 10 people are unemployed.

The Supreme Court of Canada opened the door to a native fishery on Sept. 17 when it acquitted Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Donald Marshall Jr. of catching eels out of season.

The court found that a 1760 treaty between the Mi'kmaq and King George II gave natives in the region the right to earn a moderate living from fishing, hunting and gathering.

Dhaliwal said Sunday that the ruling makes it clear that a native's right to fish can be infringed upon with federal regulation.

Commercial fishers welcomed the government's move on Sunday, but warned its success will depend on what happens in Burnt Church and Indian Brook.

''He (Dhaliwal) is trying to avoid bloodshed which I think is laudable. I just don't know if Burnt Church will accept it,'' said Rory McLellan of the Prince Edward Island Fisherman's Association.

Atlantic chiefs this week called for a 30-day moratorium on all lobster fishing, paving the way for Dhaliwal's compromise. The minister praised the strong leadership of the chiefs on Sunday and lauded the people of District 35, near Digby, N.S., where native and commercial fishers have agreed to operate a joint fishery when the lobster season opens there on Oct. 14.

Later this week, Dhaliwal is expected to unveil a process designed to reach a long-term solution to the fishing crisis.

Over the winter, he must find a way to accommodate as many as 2,000 Mi'kmaq in a fishery that many believe is showing signs of stress.

Established fishers say there simply isn't enough lobster, shrimp snow crab and scallops to support those with licences. But native leaders have made it clear they want either a share of all the stocks or compensation for remaining out of the fishery.

Atlantic Canada's fishing industry is worth about $1.2 billion annually.