The Department of Fisheries and Oceans returned 196 lobster traps seized last fall from those engaged in the Community Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery, then reached an interim understanding with Potlotek First Nation fishers to set 700 traps and sell their catches for the remainder of the 2021 season.

With the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Conservation and Protection Branch admitting to “tensions” in this year’s lobster fishery, the question arises; what happens next?

According to press release issued by the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, harvesters from Potlotek First Nation returned to their fishery on June 5 after they reached a deal with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

Potlotek’s authorized harvesters will be able to fish and sell their catches, with the cooperation of the DFO, the assembly noted.

Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall said they built a solid plan that laid out tagging and reporting structures, and are developing enforcement protocols. He said they went through all formal processes and consulted on every part of their plan.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan said this “interim measure” speaks to the moderate livelihood fishing aspirations of the community, noting the Richmond County First Nation will be authorized to set 700 traps in Lobster Fishing Areas 27, 28, 29, 30 and 31a.

Since this is a temporary measure, the assembly said more discussions will need to be held on future seasons and fisheries. Marshall said Potlotek will work with the DFO.

In acknowledging that this is an interim measure, Jordan said the department is committed to continuing consultations with the community, including community concerns about access.

This came after 196 traps that were seized from Mi’kmaw livelihood harvesters last fall were finally returned by the DFO, the assembly confirmed

The traps were seized by DFO’s Conservation and Protection (C&P) Branch during the fall fishery and belonged to Mi’kmaw harvesters authorized under Community Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery Plans from both Potlotek and Eskasoni First Nations.

While the Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery is managed by Mi’kmaw communities, all fishing gear, equipment and supplies are purchased and owned by those harvesters who are undertaking and exercising their Treaty Right, the assembly stated.

Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny said his people are just trying to better their lives and the lives of their families, and it is “shameful” DFO would try to stop that.

DFO spokesperson Robin Jahn confirmed the traps were initially seized in the fall of 2020 because they were in contravention of the Fisheries Act.

Noel d’Entremont, Acting Director of Conservation and Protection for the Maritime Region, told The Reporter the traps in St. Peter’s Bay were returned with a written warning to both Potlotek and Eskasoni First Nations. He said the traps had no authorization from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

D’Entremont told The Reporter that the seizure of lobster traps and the participation of First Nations fishers in this year’s season have led to “tensions.”

But he said the C&P branch will “continue to have a presence in the St. Peter’s Bay area to monitor all fisheries taking place.”

And in addition to conducting their own surveillance on the water, d’Entremont said they have also been working with the RCMP, which has provided a noticeable presence at wharves around the Strait area this lobster season.

With the end of lobster season coming in weeks, hopefully the season will conclude without incident, and First Nations and the federal government can continue to iron out solutions.

But what happens if First Nations continue their ceremonial fishery at the end of the summer, as they have in the past? Will those aforementioned tensions arise again, and what will be the result?

The good will demonstrated by the DFO in returning the traps and reaching an interim understanding, will help defuse the situation, but only so much.

Some harvesters under the Community Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery Plans had their traps confiscated at the very beginning of this lobster season, and there is no guarantee the same might happen again this year, or next.

And, the deal allowing 700 lobster traps, and for First Nations to sell their catches, is temporary, and does not extend into next year. If a deal is not reached before the start of the 2022 season, who knows what could happen.

These unknowns are what is feeding the tension, they also have the potential to further widen the gap between fishers, and to completely erode any faith in the federal government to effectively watch over the fishery.