Tribal fishery changing traditional way of life for generations of fishermen

By MICHAEL TUTTON, Associated Press
Boston Globe
Sunday, April 8, 2001

SANDY COVE, Nova Scotia. Fishing captain Stephen Newman has come to view the tribal fishery as a distant corporation gaining more control of offshore resources but returning little to his community. 

”All of our young men and our ancestors have fished in the groundfishery. Now you can’t,” Newman says. 

In November, a nearby fishing company sold its license to catch and process about 2.8 million pounds of highly valued cod, haddock and pollock to the federal government. 

The government turned the license over to three tribal bands in Cape Breton and one in central Nova Scotia. 

Newman says the tribes have hired trawlers and fishermen from Pubnico, Nova Scotia, a town more than 60 miles to the southeast. In doing so, it has ended a traditional way of life for dozens of fishermen who have fished the waters off Sandy Cove and other nearby communities for generations. 

”I don’t agree with that. It takes the boats two days to get here off our shores,” says Newman, 37, who inherited his fishing licenses from his grandfather. He’s fished the tidal waters of St. Mary’s Bay, off Nova Scotia’s southwest shore, since he was 15. 

”Why did they come into our area and buy it from one little spot? What are our men supposed to do?” 

It’s the same question many non-tribal fishermen throughout Atlantic Canada are asking, in light of a 1999 Supreme Court of Canada decision that allowed tribal members to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing. 

The ruling forced the federal Fisheries Department to seek out and buy 800 existing fishing licenses in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces and transfer them to tribal groups. 

That sudden demand for licenses sent the market cost of a lobster license skyrocketing to just under $1 million, more than four times the previous value. 

Shawn Symonds, who crews a lobster boat in Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia, says it’s now almost impossible to save enough money to buy a license. Instead, the licenses are being bought by Ottawa or sold to a handful of small companies that can still afford them. 

”I’ve tried for the past year and the banks won’t even look at you,” Symonds said. 

The number of licenses held by tribal members is still a fraction of the 25,000 in circulation but more are expected to change hands once stalled negotiations between natives and the federal government resume. 

”There’s a shift of employment, there’s no doubt about it … It will lead to changes to long established patterns in the industry, said Fisheries Department spokesman Andre Marc Lanteigne. 

Non-tribal fishermen said the shift in ownership is creating chaos and bitterness. 

In northeastern New Brunswick, 21 crab fishermen some of them in their 50s lost their jobs because licenses had been purchased from Acadian captains for transfer to the tribes. 

”One small community of 1,000 souls have lost 10 full-time jobs,” says Jean Saint-Cyr, a spokesman for a crab fishermen’s federation in northern New Brunswick. 

He says that none of the crab fishing quotas transferred are being fished by tribal members, and that many of the boats sold by the owners are simply idle this season. 

”Our message to the federal government is before you hand over more quota make sure the quantities you bought back and gave to the natives is actually being fished,” said Saint-Cyr. 

The federal Fisheries Department says it doesn’t know how many native fishermen are directly employed as a result of the transfer to Micmac first nations in New Brunswick. 

”We do know that, at this point, it would be a relatively small proportion,” said Lanteigne. 

Tribal fishermen say eventually they’ll shift from being owners of licenses to operators of their own boats. Alex Cope, the band manager of the Millbrook reservation in central Nova Scotia, says his community is currently training its fishermen. 

”Those (non-tribal) communities and families have had such a monopoly for so many years that when these changes come like this it’s hard to adjust,” he said in interview. 

Frank Jeremy, 70, a Micmac elder with the Acadia band says asking tribes only to fish near their communities would be a double standard. 

”There’s non-native fishermen from Nova Scotia who go off western Newfoundland … If they want to be fair then native people should be able to fish where they wish to.”