Fishermen want lobsters, not trouble, as spring season opens

Canadian Press
Friday, April 28, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. Fishermen in northern New Brunswick say they'll be looking for lobsters, not trouble, when they set their traps today in Miramichi Bay.

The lobster fishery opens in various parts of the Maritimes this morning, but most of the attention will be focused on the Burnt Church area on New Brunswick's northeastern coast.
Native and non-native fishermen clashed here last fall after members of the Burnt Church First Nation took advantage of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that said the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have a treaty right to earn a moderate living from fishing.

The Burnt Church reserve has turned down a deal from Ottawa for an interim fisheries agreement that would impose federal regulations in return for financial and training incentives.

Chief Wilbur Dedam and council members said Friday that Ottawa's offer of a few more commercial licences for the reserve of 1,300 was not enough.

''It's an insult,'' said Dedam, himself a fisherman.

Vernon Mitchell, a member of the band council, said many people are worried cutting deals with Ottawa would weaken their treaty rights.

''They're scared the treaty rights would be signed away and they don't like the fact that Ottawa is trying to put dollar amounts on our rights,''
Mitchell said.

Despite the lack of an agreement, there's a feeling in Burnt Church that the spring season will go well and there won't be any confrontations.

The federal Fisheries Department has given the reserve a communal licence and expects that should cover the fairly limited activities of the reserve.

While lobster come closer to shore in the fall, the spring season requires larger boats that can go into deeper, more turbulent waters. Most fishermen on the Mi'kmaq reserve have small, inshore boats.

Talbot Larry, a Burnt Church fisherman who will set 300 traps today under the communal licence, said he expects about eight native boats to be on the water.

''I think it should turn out very well,'' said Larry.

''As long as fishermen with the communal licence have tags to put on their traps, there should be no problems.''

The Fisheries Department requires all lobster traps to be tagged so they can keep track of who is fishing where. Fisheries officials have warned that untagged traps will be seized.

Mike Belliveau of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, which represents commercial fishermen, said there are concerns that unregulated fishing by natives last fall may have hurt the stocks.

''There was significant fishing out of season last fall and there are concerns that wil have an impact on this spring fishery,'' said Belliveau.

''We have to cross our fingers and hope the impact is not dramatic.''

The Supreme Court found in the Donald Marshall case that Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have the right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing, hunting and gathering based on 18th-century treaties.

Following the ruling, Burnt Church natives set about 3,000 traps in Miramichi Bay, despite the fact that the commercial season was closed.

Outraged non-native fishermen cut hundreds of traps. Native and non-native homes and buildings were vandalized and burned.

There were demands that Ottawa take action to control the native fishery.

A subsequent clarification by the high court said the treaty right is subject to federal regulation.

Concerns about a repeat of the violence last fall prompted the Christian Peacemakers group, which describes itself as a private, violence reduction initiative, to send observers to Burnt Church.

Janet Shoemaker, one of the peacemakers, said although there are still tensions dividing the native and non-native communities, she believes the spring season will be quiet.

Shoemaker pointed out that the main irritant last fall was that natives were fishing when no one else was allowed to take lobster.

That isn't the case in the spring, when everyone with a licence, either communal or commercial, is out on the water.

''It's calm,'' Shoemaker said. ''We've talked to people in both the native and the white communities and people are just interested in going out and fishing, hoping nobody will bother anybody.''