Of native rights - and wrongs

Wednesday, October 11, 2000 

If DFO has already calculated that Mi'kmaqs from Burnt Church may safely catch up to 416 Atlantic salmon in the Tabusintac River this year, why is the band's salmon fishery causing such an uproar? Is this just another battle over jurisdiction?


Although the band's management plan authorizes exactly the same number of fish and nets as DFO's plan, there are several things wrong with the band's proposal besides its refusal to recognize Ottawa's authority. It would transform a food fishery for a protected species into a commercial fishery. In creating a market for wild salmon, the band would also unintentionally widen the market for poached fish. And, unless Burnt Church marks its gill nets, it will be impossible to tell nets set by natives from nets set by poachers.

Burnt Church could seek alternatives to gill netting, such as weir traps, which would allow spawning females to be released unharmed and clearly distinguish the legal native food fishery from poaching. They could enlist help from other reserves or salmon conservation organizations that are lobbying to end gill netting. Surely, in the interest of replacing gill nets with less destructive traps, these groups would be willing to put their money where their rhetoric is.

But even if Burnt Church improves its fishing practices, there is a crucial difference between fishing for food and fishing for profit. Natives have an inherent right to fish for food and ceremonial purposes, provided conservation goals are met. The right to fish for trade is a treaty right, not an inherent right - and, as the Supreme Court's Marshall rulings clearly stated, the authority to open and close commercial fisheries still lies with Ottawa.

There are one tenth as many Atlantic salmon today as there were 25 years ago, and the population continues to decline. Opening a commercial salmon fishery when other fishing opportunities exist makes no sense.

To those who argue that a native commercial fishery could not possibly have an impact on salmon stocks, we say, look to our history. New Brunswick once teemed with caribou. Competition from deer, disease and overhunting all took a toll, and the species was destroyed. The Mi'kmaq and Maliseet who worked as commercial hunters and guides played a part in that extermination just as surely as natural pressures and non-native hunters did.

When the odds are already stacked against a species, it doesn't matter who is doing the killing; every death brings extinction a step closer. Salmon have sustained the Mi'kmaq at Esgenoopetij (Burnt Church) for more than 2,500 years. Would they endanger that heritage for a handful of dollars?

Should gill netting be banned altogether?