Lobster departure cools dispute in Miramichi Bay
Fisheries officials say there are now no more than 300 native traps left in the water

Canadian Press
Friday, September 29, 2000.

BURNT CHURCH - The central figure in the great lobster drama at the Burnt Church reserve is leaving the stage.

The lobster, the prized crustacean at the heart of the native fishing dispute, has started its seasonal move toward deeper waters and that will put an end to the conflict in New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay -- at least for this year.

"The lobster itself decides when this is over," said Burnt Church resident Leo Bartibogue, who oversees the reserve's controversial fishery.

"They're moving out and there's not a whole lot of lobster out there now."

Bartibogue said there are only about 100 native traps left in the water, and they're mostly symbolic at this point.

Even the federal Fisheries Department, which has consistently calculated the number of native traps at much higher levels than the Mi'kmaq reserve, estimated Thursday there are no more than 300 traps left in the bay.

Bob Allain, a Fisheries spokesman, said the department will monitor the situation. He said fisheries officials are hoping the native fishery ends soon.

"We're hearing a variety of dates," Allain said. "We would hope the fishing could end very quickly but we'll just have to wait and see and continue to monitor."

Federal enforcement officers seized more than 3,000 traps during their six-week crackdown of the native lobster fishery, which Ottawa considers illegal.

The Mi'kmaq people of Burnt Church decided not to accept a proposed one-year fisheries agreement with the federal government which would have given the impoverished reserve money, equipment, training and more access to the commercial fishery in exchange for acceptance of federal regulations.

The reserve decided instead to fish under its own management plan, in accordance with last fall's Supreme Court of Canada ruling that the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet people have the right to make a moderate living by hunting, fishing and gathering.

But the federal Fisheries Department insisted it also was following a high court ruling, this one a rare followup clarification stating that the federal government has the right to regulate the fishery under certain circumstances.

Bartibogue said most of the remaining native traps probably will be gone by Monday. The reserve's own management plan set the time of closure at Oct. 7 and Bartibogue said a few diehards likely will fish to the bitter end.

Lobsters are migratory and they settle in the deep waters outside the bay for the winter. The fishermen at Burnt Church use small, open motorboats which are not big enough to tackle the rough, offshore fishery.

"We don't have the equipment to follow the lobsters out, so the season is pretty well over anyway," said Lloyd Augustine, an adviser to the Burnt Church band council.

Bartibogue said the people of Burnt Church are proud of what they accomplished.

"The people here didn't back down to the government," he said. "To me, it brings a lot of pride and dignity to our people. We achieved what we wanted to achieve."

The six-week standoff between Ottawa and Burnt Church resulted in a number of ugly and dangerous confrontations on Miramichi Bay. No one was killed, although there were some injuries including a fisheries officer who was hit in the face with a rock hurled from a native boat.