Lobster pot boils over: Non-Indians pull unlicensed traps from N.B. waters

The Gazette (Montreal)
Monday, October 4, 1999

BURNT CHURCH RESERVE, N.B. Tensions between Indian and non-Indian fishermen exploded yesterday in a pre-dawn raid by at least 100 fishing boats, destroying perhaps thousands of Micmac lobster traps in New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay.

The raid by non- aboriginal fishermen followed last month's Supreme Court decision that upheld a 1760 treaty giving Atlantic Canada Indians the right to earn a living from hunting, fishing and gathering.

The ruling prompted many Indians without licenses to start trapping lobsters off Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the off-season, leading licensed fishermen to charge their own livelihoods are being threatened.

'An island of boats'

Micmac witnesses said the boats used on yesterday's raid left nearby Neguac and Escuminac in northeastern New Brunswick, about an hour's run from Burnt Church, early yesterday.

By about 9 a.m., up to 3,000 traps had disappeared, with their catches set free. Indians who saw the armada approach described it as ''an island of boats'' moving across Miramichi Bay.

RCMP Inspector Norm Mazerolle said police are investigating. No arrests had been made as of late yesterday.

Mobs also stormed three local fish-processing plants accused of handling Indian-caught lobsters.

Ronald Maillet, who runs Crown Seafood Ltd. in Pointe-Sapin, N.B., said about 300 people stormed his plant, causing $25,000 in damage.

Maillet was not present, but said employees told him non-Indian fishermen busted doors, destroyed computers and vending machines, and tried without success to get into coolers that held about 20,000 kilograms of fresh lobster.

He denied ever knowingly buying lobster caught by unlicensed Indians.

Witnesses at another plant, J and J Fisheries Ltd. in Richibucto, N.B., said an angry mob knocked over desks and kicked in doors. RCMP Sgt. Roger Somers later confirmed a third fish plant was hit.

He also said two trucks owned by non-Indians were vandalized on the Burnt Church Reserve, but could not confirm it was a retaliatory act. He said the windows were smashed, the tires slashed, and one vehicle was set on fire.

At one point, a shouting match erupted between Indians and non-Indians at the end of the Burnt Church wharf. Indians screamed, ''We have the right to fish!'' while non-Indians accused them of overfishing. An RCMP officer prevented any violence.

Burnt Church chief Alex Dedam said Indians will not stop fishing while Ottawa tries to sort out the situation. He promised they will reset traps during the next 30 days until it becomes too cold to catch lobster.

Dedam said he is trying to calm his people, but ''there is a very tense situation here.'' He called for criminal and civil charges to be laid soon.

Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, faulted federal politicians for inaction after the Supreme Court ruling.

Despite intense pressure, federal Fisheries Minister Herb Dhaliwal did not ask Indians to pull their unlicensed lobster traps from the waters of Miramichi Bay when he finally issued a statement on the ruling at a press conference Friday.

Belliveau said what happened yesterday was predictable, but that the MFU takes no responsibility. ''We have never promoted an illegal protest.''

He said he can't imagine how any charges can be laid - under either the Criminal Code or the Fisheries Act - because there is no fishing plan in force for Miramichi Bay and no proof of to whom the traps belong.

''Everybody has been left in the dark about what are the rules of the game.''

'Had just about enough'

Terry Boucher, regional director of communications for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said DFO officers used their boats to assist RCMP investigators. He said that, following the raid, a DFO helicopter and an airplane flew in over Miramichi Bay, Escuminac and Pointe-Sapin, following lobster boats heading to shore. ''These are criminal acts,'' said Boucher.

RCMP and DFO officers waited on shore to interview non-Indian fishermen returning to their home harbours. Few would say much, other than that they had ''had just about enough,'' according to one.

Edward Francis, a member of the Micmac Warrior Society on the Burnt Church reserve, stood at dockside yesterday and vowed that Indians will destroy all the traps set by non-aboriginals when the spring lobster season begins. ''We will do exactly the same thing to them in May.''