DFO expects relaxed start for lobsters

By Nancy Willis
The Guardian
Thursday, April 25, 2001

SOURIS. With the 2001 lobster season only days away, federal fisheries representatives are anticipating a relatively relaxed startup in P.E.I. and throughout most of the Maritimes. 

The exceptions will be the continued resistance from native bands in Burnt Church, N.B., and Indian Brook, N.S. 

David Bevan, DFO’s director general of resource management in Ottawa, was in Charlottetown Monday to discuss the current state of affairs from his department’s perspective. 

“Now that we (DFO and the Atlantic chiefs) have agreed on wording that assures that signing a fishing agreement will not jeopardize future treaty rights, it should clear the way for native bands to fish under agreements without fear of compromising themselves in the long run,” said Bevan. 

Until now, none of the Maritime’s 34 First Nations’ bands would sign DFO’s new three-year regulatory agreements that would make them eligible to access more fish, more boats and gear, and co-management possibilities. 

“The way the original documents read, they feared that if they came to the negotiating table, they would be jeopardizing their long-term rights and that is understandable,” said Bevan. 

An initial template of the “without prejudice” wording was settled on over the weekend. That means, he said, that bands can sign short-term fishing agreements and not jeopardize any long-term negotiations for fishing rights. 

“It may still take a little massaging for the bands to be really confident, but I think this has pretty well cleared the way,” he said of the weekend understanding. 

Last year’s participation in the fishery by First Nations grossed $22 million in earnings. Two hundred fishing enterprises (boat, gear and licences) were transferred from retiring traditional commercial fishermen and put into native hands. Participation of First Nations in the fishery was increased by 175 per cent. 

Bevan expects that a high percentage of bands will go ahead and sign the regulatory agreements now that the “without prejudice” issue is cleared up. However, he said, those who don’t will still have the right to go fishing this spring based on what they started with last year. 

“But if they want increased access to stocks, boats, etc., they will have to come to us,” he said. 

To accommodate native access declared by the Supreme Court’s Marshall decision in 1999, and protect the resource while doing so, DFO has chosen to buy out retiring fishermen as it brings new entrants in. Bevan says despite efforts to discourage it, the push for licences has caused major competition in the industry. Prices for fishing outfits in some locations have skyrocketed. 

“Buyouts are going for over a half-a-million dollars in South West Nova Scotia, and in some cases we are being outbid by the private sector,” said Bevan. 

Darcy Sark is a fisherman from the Abegweit Band in Rocky Point, P.E.I. His band has just acquired four new vessels as a result of buyouts it was willing to wait for. 

That makes a total of seven boats from ports in Malpeque, Alberton, Red Head and others. He is optimistic that this year’s fishery will be a peaceful one for his band members. 

“I just returned from Red Head Harbour talking to a fellow who is part of the harbour authority there and he was great,” said Sark. “They have saved our places at the wharf and that is a very welcome sign.” 

The aboriginal food fishery that recognizes native rights to fish out of season for food, ceremonial and social purposes continues to be a sore spot among commercial fishermen, said Bevan. But there is no significant change expected there this year. 

Non-native fishermen say the high volumes of fish caught during off season are endangering the stocks. Because of limited competition when they are set, traps are fishing up to eight times more fish than they would during a normal licensed season, said Bevan. He said DFO has been trying to negotiate for smaller volume limits since the Marshall decision was handed down. 

When asked whether people would see another summer of bad headlines out of Burnt Church, Bevan said “the ingredients are there.” 

However, DFO will continue to try and convince leaders there that to manage one stock of fish successfully, all those fishing for it have to come together with a collective view. 

“They cannot all put forth separate management plans, established independently, and hope to protect it,” he said. 

The lucrative spring lobster season is slated to begin May 1. Crab and other fisheries are already underway.