Lobster fishery still festering: Although season has started calmly, aboriginal communities are divided

The Gazette (Montreal)
Monday, May 1, 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 aboriginal and non-Indian 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 aboriginal 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 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 use 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. ''

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

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

A subsequent clarification 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 aboriginals took to the water to fish alongside non-Indian fishermen who have traditionally dominated the commercial fishery.

Andre Marc Lanteigne, a spokesman for the federal Fisheries Department, warned that any lobster traps without federal tags will be seized.

''We have, in the past, accepted First Nation tags, but we have to be assured the supplier is certified and the sequencing of numbers is respected so we can really have a good handle on the number of traps out there,'' he said.

Lanteigne said Ottawa will continue trying to hammer out a deal with Burnt Church.