Gill net crackdown pushed
CONSERVATION: Opponents call the practice 'vicious'

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Salmon conservationists are urging Ottawa to ban the use of gill nets by natives on New Brunswick rivers.

Several native bands use the nets - which are called "vicious, indiscriminate killers" by conservationists - to catch salmon for food and ceremonial purposes.

Groups such as the Atlantic Salmon Federation have long lobbied the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to ban the nets.

However, recent concern that natives may ignore federal regulations and impose their own rules on the salmon fishery has heightened the urgency to ban the gill nets.

"The gill net is a sure killer," Jack Fenety, a former president of the Miramichi Salmon Association who served from 1961 to 1996, said Monday.

"This is a question of conservation. We have to hope and pray that they [the natives] realize the great peril facing the Atlantic salmon and refrain from gill netting."

The call to ban gill nets comes one day after DFO officers seized three illegal gill nets from the Tabusintac River and less than a week after officers seized a half-ton truck and 13 untagged salmon from two native fishermen from Burnt Church. Last weekend, Mik'maq fishermen and rangers hauled the last of their lobster traps from Miramichi Bay.

For the past few months, the bay was a battleground between natives from Burnt Church First Nation and DFO enforcement officers.

Natives there said that the Supreme Court's Marshall decision granted them the right to manage their own fishery. However, a subsequent clarification by the Supreme Court stated that Ottawa has the right to regulate the fishery for conservation purposes.

This difference of opinion led to violent clashes on the water.

The DFO sent enforcement officers to this tiny community to haul natives traps from the water. Natives threw rocks and bricks at the officers, who responded at times by ramming native boats, arresting native fishermen and seizing their boats and traps.

Mother Nature eventually put an end to the fishing on the bay. The waters there are now cold and choppy and the lobster have moved on to other areas.

However, Burnt Church now seems to be shifting its fight for fishing rights to the salmon food fishery.

According to DFO regulations, the band is allowed to harvest to 416 salmon from the Tabusintac River for food and ceremonial purposes. The river flows into the Northumberland Strait and is located between Neguac and Tracadie-Sheila.

The natives there are authorized to use up to 13 gill nets to catch their salmon.

However, a spokesman for the band said on Sunday that Burnt Church has the right to ignore Ottawa's rules and regulate its own salmon fishery. These comments come mere days after two Burnt Church men were arrested by DFO enforcement officers for alleged illegal salmon fishing.

The DFO claims that the men gill netted 13 salmon but then did not tag them with DFO-approved tags. The salmon and a half-ton truck were seized by the officers.

A DFO spokesman said he hoped that this was an isolated event and not the beginning of a new confrontation over native fishing rights.

The DFO also seized three gill nets from the Tabusintac, two on Sunday and one on Monday. These nets did not have DFO-approved tags on them. However, DFO director for Eastern New Brunswick Robert Allain said that it's not known whether the gill nets were set by natives or non-natives.

Sue Scott, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic Salmon Federation in St. Andrews, said she hoped that Burnt Church will follow Ottawa's regulations.

However, she also urged Ottawa to ban gill nets from all rivers.

Gill nets are extremely effective at catching salmon. When stretched across a portion of river, the nets snare salmon of all sizes.

Even the salmon that escape a gill net often suffer damage to their gills and slowly suffocate later.

Ms. Scott said the worst thing about gill nets is that they are indiscriminate killers; the nets often catch the large, egg-bearing female salmon that are crucial for the continuation of the species.

With Atlantic salmon numbers plunging in rivers across the region, the continued use of gill nets by natives makes no sense, she said.

"We need each and every fish to meet escapement [targets]," Ms. Scott said. "There's this huge conservation issue here."

Non-native fishermen are not permitted to use gill nets and there is currently no commercial fishery for Atlantic salmon in Canada.

There are other fish-harvesting options for natives, such as specialized weir nets that trap salmon but allow harvesters to release egg-bearing females.

Mr. Allain agreed that there are other ways to catch salmon than gill netting. Several New Brunswick First Nations, including Pabineau, Red Bank, Big Cove and the New Brunswick Aboriginal Council, do not use gill nets and natives at Burnt Church have joined in the past with the DFO to experiment with special salmon traps.

However, the Supreme Court's Sparrow decision, which gave natives the right to fish salmon for food and ceremonial purposes, did not specify how the salmon should be caught.

Mr. Allain said that the Tabusintac's salmon population is exceeding conservation goals and can withstand controlled gill netting by natives.

Burnt Church's salmon management plan is very similar to the DFO's. Both plans call for 416 salmon to be taken by 13 gill nets. The Burnt Church plan, however, opens the door for the commercial sale of salmon by allowing fishermen to dispose of their catch in whatever way that is "most advantageous" to them. The Burnt Church plan also says fishermen should use native fishing tags rather than DFO tags.