HALIFAX (CP) – Residents of New Brunswick’s Burnt Church reserve have accused Ottawa of forcing the two sides in a nasty dispute over fishing rights to work side-by-side on the same wharf. Brian Bartibogue, a council member from Burnt Church, said the Department of Fisheries and Oceans plans to destroy a government wharf natives use to fish lobster in Miramichi Bay.
That would mean native fishermen, who have clashed violently with non-natives for the last two years over the bay’s rich lobster grounds, would have to share a nearby wharf used by the commercial fishermen.
“It’s politicking in the worst way and it’s obvious it’s forcing our people into what very well could be some very dangerous situations,” Bartibogue said Wednesday from Moncton, N.B.
The government wharf in Burnt Church, an impoverished reserve in northeastern New Brunswick, was severely damaged in a storm late last November.
Bartibogue said DFO sent the band council a letter in early December saying the department was considering destroying the wharf because the damage made it unsafe to use.
Council members responded to the letter by insisting they didn’t want the wharf, located outside the reserve, to be demolished, Bartibogue said.
He said a DFO official told him it had already been decided that the wharf would be destroyed.
Andre-Marc Lanteigne, a spokesman with DFO in Halifax, said the department was still considering what to do with the wharf, but that it would cost about $600,000 to repair.
He said DFO has been steadily getting out of harbour management and turning over the care of federal wharfs to private groups.
“Of course it will be easy for them to say that we pick on them, but you wouldn’t believe how many communities could have said this in the last three years,” Lanteigne said Wednesday.
“We know that this is not a purely business decision that we have to make this time because we know the history there.”
Natives, non-native fishermen and fisheries officials have been locked in a sometimes violent dispute that saw gunshots ring out over the bay last summer.
Natives argue they have treaty rights to manage the fishery in defiance of non-native insistence that only DFO controls access to the stocks.
Bartibogue said the department is punishing Burnt Church for refusing to sign a deal with the department that would recognize DFO’s right to manage the fishery.
Dozens of other bands in the region have signed similar deals, often getting new boats and wharfs when they agree to the plan.
“The only way we can get our own wharf is to sign an agreement with DFO. Burnt Church has made it very clear we’re not interested in pursuing that,” said Bartibogue.
“It’s unfortunate that DFO has taken the position to destroy the only wharf in our community and force our fishermen into areas where it is obvious they are not welcome.