Native lobster dispute simmers, traps seized

London Free Press
Friday, June 2, 2000

The dispute over native fishing rights in northeastern New Brunswick is turning into a high stakes cat-and-mouse game.

Federal fisheries officers, backed by RCMP patrol boats, headed out onto Miramichi Bay in the pre-dawn darkness yesterday and seized at least 40 native lobster traps -- the biggest single seizure so far this season.

Hours later, several small native boats from the defiant Burnt Church First Nation pushed off from shore and, once again, set lobster traps that do not carry the required, government-sanctioned identification tags.

Fisheries officials vowed they, too, will be seized as the simmering dispute continues over whose rights take precedence in the valuable lobster fishery: native treaty rights or Ottawa's right to regulate.

"If they were looking to discourage us, the exact opposite happened," said band member James Ward, one of the architects of the reserve's own fishing management plan.

"We went out and we put more traps back in and we're getting more donations of traps. If they were trying to discourage us, it backfired."

Andre Marc Lanteigne, a spokesperson for the federal Fisheries Department, said the department has laws to uphold and conservation measures to protect, so improperly tagged native traps will continue to be taken.

"We have no choice but to continue to stop any illegal fishing activity."

There was no physical confrontation between fisheries officers and natives. The officers struck before any native fishers were on the water.

However, several RCMP officers in patrol cars watching the action from shore were asked by angry natives to leave the Mi'kmaq reserve of about 1,200 people.

"We persuaded them to leave and we escorted them off the reserve," Ward said.

Lanteigne said the Burnt Church community is split over the fishing issue.

Some band members are fishing with commercial licences under federal regulations; others are trying to use band-issued tags that are not recognized by the government.

Ward said the vast majority of people on the reserve support the band's go-it-alone stand.

"Unfortunately, we have a few people caught up in the mentality of working under DFO," Ward said. "That happens a lot in colonial regimes."

Brian Bartibogue, a native fisher from Burnt Church, pleaded not guilty in provincial court yesterday. He's the first and so far the only native fisher charged since the Miramichi lobster season opened in late April.