Tensions lurk beneath calm surface of lobster fishery

Canadian Press
Sunday, April 30, 2000

BURNT CHURCH, N.B. The calm that characterized the opening of the spring lobster season on New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay could be deceptive.

Even as native and non-native fishermen in the Maritimes head out today to haul traps they set on Saturday, dissension is growing on the Burnt Church reserve in New Brunswick, the scene of a violent fishing dispute last fall.

''A lot of people are really pissed off,'' said James Ward, one of the architects of the reserve's own fisheries management plan.

Ward said some members of the reserve are angry because a number of native fishermen, with the support of at least one band councillor, decided to accept the authority of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and use federal tags to mark their lobster traps.

''By accepting the tags, they're willingly giving consent to DFO being the authority,'' Ward said.

''It undermined our policy. We want to be the source of authority.''

Ward has been working for months on a management plan that would involve the use of the reserve's own tag system.

He said the reserve plan would guarantee access to more fishermen than are allowed under the communal licence imposed by Ottawa for the spring lobster fishery.

Ward said there will be a community meeting on Tuesday at Burnt Church to discuss the issue.

''We're going to see if there is some way we can get our policy back on track,'' Ward said.

Burnt Church is one of several Maritime bands that have rejected an interim fishing agreement with Ottawa in favour of working out their own system under rights guaranteed by 18th-century treaties.

The Indian Brook band on Nova Scotia's eastern shore has also snubbed Ottawa and is openly defying the federal government's authority.

On Friday, DFO seized 20 traps, about 450 kilograms of snow crab and a fishing boat that had been hauled in before for the same offence.

Andre-Marc Lanteigne, a spokesman for DFO, said Sunday that the four people on board are affiliated with the band, but that the boat is owned by a non-native.

''Charges are being considered against the owner of the boat,'' he said, adding that the fishermen might be charged with fishing in a closed zone.

The landscape of the Maritime fishing industry changed last fall after the Supreme Court of Canada upheld those ancient treaty rights in the case of native fisherman Donald Marshall Jr.

The Marshall ruling said the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have a communal right to earn a moderate living from hunting, fishing and gathering.

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

The lobster season that opened Saturday in a number of areas in Atlantic Canada is the first real test of the changes imposed by the Marshall decision. The season lasts until late June.

Everything was calm as natives took to the water to fish alongside non-native fishermen who have traditionally dominated the commercial fishery.

Lanteigne warned that any lobster traps without federal tags will be seized, but that Ottawa will continue trying to hammer out a deal with Burnt Church.

The agreements being offered by federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal include financial incentives and promises of boats, gear and training for native fishermen.

So far, 19 of 34 Mi'kmaq and Maliseet reserves have either signed deals or agreements-in-principle.

It was out-of-season fishing by Burnt Church last fall that sparked a week-long spree of violence and vandalism between natives and non-natives.

Several buildings were burned and angry commercial fishermen cut and destroyed hundreds of native lobster traps.