Second Mi’kmaq fishery creating ‘a big excitement’ in small Cape Breton band

The leader of a First Nation in southern Cape Breton that has started Nova Scotia’s second self-regulated commercial Indigenous fishery says it has created a mood of excitement and optimism in his small community.

Wilbert Marshall, the chief of Potlotek First Nation, said seven vessels are already participating in the lobster fishery just three days into the new effort. He said the boats are bringing in hundreds of pounds of lobster daily outside of the federally regulated season.

During a telephone interview on Sunday, his nephew arrived to borrow his trailer, which the young man planned to use to purchase lobster traps for an additional vessel that will soon be licenced by the Mi’kmaq band.

“It’s created a big excitement here. It’s good to see they want to fish and make some money,” said the chief from his home in Potlotek, about 70 kilometres northeast of Sydney, N.S.

The community of about 700 remains short on housing, and Marshall said young people in Potlotek are eager to earn enough to buy their home rather than wait for the band’s help.

“They don’t want to rely on us. … We’re here to help them out and give them a means to do it,” he said.

The opening of the fishery on Thursday was similar to the Sipekne’katik First Nation lobster fishery in western Nova Scotia, which started last month on the 21st anniversary of a historic 1999 Supreme Court ruling.

In that decision, the court decided that Donald Marshall Jr. had a treaty right to fish for eels when and where he wanted, without a licence.

The Marshall decision also said the First Nations in Eastern Canada could hunt, fish and gather to earn a “moderate livelihood,” though the court followed up with a clarification two months later saying the treaty right was subject to federal regulation.

That additional ruling is at the crux of the argument being made by some non-Indigenous fishers, who say First Nations must abide by Ottawa’s conservation measures.

The Richmond County Inshore Fishermen’s Association, the largest non-Indigenous group fishing in the St. Peter’s Bay area, sent an email declining comment on the Potlotek fishery.

However, Marshall said to date there have been no conflicts on the water, unlike tensions which led to hundreds of the Sipekne’katik traps being hauled from the waters of St. Marys Bay by commercial harvesters last month.

“So far, they (non-Indigenous fishers) are talking to the government. They said they’ll leave us alone. So far, it’s been quiet here,” he said.

Marshall said the livelihood fishery plan required 14 weeks to prepare, and is being used now as a model by other bands around the province.

It allows a maximum of 70 traps per person on the vessel, with a maximum of 200 traps per vessel.

Craig Doucette, a 36-year-old Mi’kmaq lobster fisherman, said in an interview he caught about 110 pounds of lobster on Sunday from his 20 traps placed in the St. Peter’s Bay, using his six-metre aluminum boat.

He hopes to fish until the middle of December, with a goal of about $ 40,000 in revenues.

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“It’s wonderful for us to be able to fish a self-governed fishery and do it for ourselves, not working for someone else,” he said.

Doucette said each day there are five or 10 people stopping by the wharf to buy his catch.

“We want to work together with others to make this work,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the federal Fisheries Department confirmed that the Potlotek fishery will be the subject of ongoing talks between government officials and Marshall, adding they’re set to continue this week.

Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan has previously said in statements that she wants to “work with First Nations leaders on the path forward of the implementation of their Treaty right.”

Since the Marshall decision, the federal Fisheries Department has responded with several programs. They began with the Marshall response initiative, which provided First Nation communities with licences, vessels and gear.

Through that initiative, an investment of $ 354 million was made between 2000 and 2007 in commercial fishing licences, vessels, gear, and training.

Following the conclusion of that program, the department launched the Atlantic integrated commercial fisheries initiative in 2007, which provides funding to build the capacity of Indigenous fishing enterprises.

To date, including projected expenditures to the end of the 2020-21 fiscal year, this has provided $ 97 million in direct funding.

Potlotek currently has 15 of these commercial communal licences, five of them for lobster.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2020

TORONTO STAR