Fishing within seasons can preserve Indigenous moderate livelihood fishery

The very rules governing commercial fisheries around Atlantic Canada, can help First Nations communities gain a stronger foothold in the industry.

On March 3, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Bernadette Jordan announced that the department will work to develop Moderate Livelihood Fishing Plans (MLFP) that are authorized and licensed by the department.

Jordan said she is prepared to license activities under these fishing plans; opening up the ability for First Nation harvesters to fish and sell their catch, and the opportunity to earn a moderate livelihood.

The Government of Canada said it will balance additional First Nations access through already available licences and a “willing buyer – willing seller” approach.

The minister said the fisheries will operate within established seasons because seasons ensure that stocks are harvested sustainably and are necessary for a well-managed fishery.

Finally, the DFO said harvesters will see an increased and coordinated federal presence on water and on land this spring, including fishery officers, supported by Canadian Coast Guard vessels.

The fisheries lead for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs said their nation was shocked by the federal government’s decision.

During a virtual press conference on March 4, Chief Gerald Toney suggested Jordan’s statement came without sufficient consultations and scientific evidence.

The assembly claims Jordan’s announcement was premature to any discussions with the Mi’kmaq, disregards the work and efforts of their communities, and is disrespectful toward any attempt at collaboration and reconciliation.

Bruce Wildsmith, a lawyer who represents the assembly, highlighted the lack of consultation prior to the minister’s decision, noting the first consultation session for a 2021 fishing season occurred on March 2, just one day prior to her statement.

Across the province, Wildsmith advised each First Nations community has completed or are in the final stages of creating their own fishery management plan for a Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery Plan, based on the Mi’kmaq principle of Netukulimk; taking only what is needed, and being respectful of the land, animals and environment.

The assembly suggested that the DFO is continuing to dictate and impose their rules on a fishery that’s outside their scope and that the right to a livelihood fishery is not and should not be controlled by industry or the federal government.

Toney indicated some Mi’kmaq communities have included fishing dates outside of commercial seasons, for the safety of harvesters who are using much smaller vessels than what is used in the commercial fishery.

The assembly said while they want to work with the federal government and fishing associations, their fishermen will pursue a moderate livelihood on their terms.

On March 4, a Coalition of Atlantic and Quebec Fishing organizations said they agreed with much of the minister’s announcement, specifically having everyone fish the same seasons, and controlling access to the fishery.

While the coalition said it welcomes DFO’s public commitment of an increased presence, enforcement of the existing rules has been inconsistent by DFO and has caused conflict.

The groups said they are concerned about the possibility of multiple short-term plans with individual First Nations, which they claim will create uncertainty and potential risk in the fishery.

The Coalition of Atlantic and Quebec fisheries called on DFO to convene a formal process where the voices of non-Indigenous fishers are at the table.

While the federal government could have conducted more consultation with First Nations communities prior to the announcement, it should not have been a surprise that new rules would be laid down before traps hit the water this year.

One major sticking point is that many First Nation communities are completed or are in the final stages of creating their own plans to manage the fishery, and while the DFO said it remains committed to continuing talks, this announcement could undermine any progress made in those negotiations.

And the fact that many First Nations are planning to fish with their own, smaller vessels and continue the moderate livelihood fishery again this year, will also pose an obstacle.

Then there are the problems posed by non-Indigenous fishers who want their voices heard, and to be represented in any discussions.

The most problematic aspect of all this is the government exerting a disturbing amount of control over the futures of First Nations which have historic, cultural and legal rights to fish.

But it is inescapable there is a need to protect fish stocks, and that cannot be accomplished with too many people fishing, and harvesting taking place throughout the year.

To keep the fishery sustainable and maintain reasonable access, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has no choice but to provide limits on who can fish and when.

This is far from the perfect scenario for anyone, and the fact there will be more fishery conservation officers on the water this year is a measure of how tenuous this plan is.

Bu it is the best option, at the moment, with the best chance of maintaining order, while observing the legal rights of First Nations.