Two Grand Etang fishermen stand by their longliner that is ready for the start of the lobster fishing season.

HALIFAX: A group of lobster licence holders wants Fisheries and Oceans Canada to allow them to sell or transfer their licences.

Former provincial cabinet minister Michel Samson of Cox and Palmer, the firm representing Class B licence holders, said a group of aging fishers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, many of whom are in deteriorating health, want to sell or transfer their licence and retire, but a 50-year-old Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) policy is preventing them.

“The only thing (the DFO) need to do is to change the policy that currently states that the licences expire upon the death of the licence holder, and give them the same transferability that’s available to Class A licence holder,” he told The Reporter.

Samson maintains the policy unfairly targets fishers who held other jobs or professions, as DFO reasoned at the time that fishing was not their primary source of income. He said the fishers disagree that they are not dependent on the fishery, and they feel the rule is arbitrary.

“I think too many people aren’t aware of what was done to these licence holders in the late 1960s, where they basically were punished for having employment outside of the fishery, and having their licence downgraded from a full licence, known as a Class A – which has approximately, depending on the Lobster Fishing Area, about 250 to 300 traps – and they were reduced to only being able to fish 30 per cent of those traps,” Samson explained. “The big issue that we’re fighting now is that also came with the other condition of the licence couldn’t be transferred or sold and it expired upon the passing of the licence holder, which does not exist for any Class A lobster licences.”

In 1976, DFO created the “moonlighter policy” which Samson asserts was aimed at removing people from the fishery as a conservation method.

“The rationale back then made sense, but we’re 50 years later, and there’s only 80 Class B licence holders left between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” he said. “The rationale we get from DFO as to why they can’t change this policy, to allow them to be able to pass down, or sell their licence, or take a buy-out from DFO, is because there’s a police from 50 years ago.”

Samson said the moonlighter policy created two categories; Class A licences for those fully dependent on the fishery; and Class B licences for those DFO deemed not fully dependent but with an historical attachment to the lobster fishery. According to the DFO, Class B fishing licences have a capacity of 75 traps per licence, roughly one-third the capacity of Class A licences, and cannot be transferred.

“There’s no cost to government to do this, there’s no added traps that will be put in the water, so there’s no increased pressure on the lobster stocks,” Samson said. “This is simply allowing these licences, that have co-existed with Class A licences for the last 50 years, to be able to continue, to allow these licence holders, the Nova Scotia tradition and Canadian tradition of being able to pass it down, either to a family member, sell it to someone else in their community.”

Not just being fair, Samson said this simple policy change can help provide more licences to First Nations fishers and communities. With a catch capacity of roughly 75 traps per licence, Class B licences could be transferred to Indigenous or non-Indigenous fishers for the establishment of moderate livelihood fisheries, similar to the interim agreements established with four First Nations communities in Southwestern Nova Scotia earlier in October, Samson said.

“In this case, the other option is that DFO may want to look at these licences as addressing some of the concerns that they’re having in reaching new agreements with First Nation throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick,” he suggested. “Right now, DFO has made a request out to Class A lobster licence holders to see if they wish to sell so that they can take those licences and enter into new agreements with First Nation communities. What we’re saying is that, if you change the policy on these Class B lobster licences, to allow them to be transferred, there are some of our licence holders who’ve indicated they would look at taking a buy-out from DFO, which would then allow DFO to take that licence and use that as part of the agreements that they’re trying to reach with First Nation communities, which would again, allow them to be able to have these agreements without adding any new pressure to the lobster fishery.”

Unlike 50 years ago, the current state of the fishery is healthy, Samson said, pointing to good catches and prices.

“I’d think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would suggest that the industry is not doing well,” he noted. “We think this is the right time to finally say, ‘okay, we’re 50 years after this policy was brought it. Where are we at today?’ I think anyone who looks at that with a reasoned approach is going to say, ‘this just doesn’t make any sense.’”

Fishers agree there should be no new licences introduced into Lobster Fishing Areas, other than what is there now, Samson said, noting that the Southwest Nova agreement was reached based on some of the licences purchased from fishers following the Marshall decision.

In Cape Breton, Samson said the situation is different. In Lobster Fishing Areas covering Inverness, Richmond, and Guysborough, the former Richmond MLA said there only six such licences.

“My understanding is there are no banked licences previously bought out by DFO, for the Lobster Fishing Areas within Cape Breton,” he noted.

Noting that those in the group want to transfer their licences to a relative or sell to neighbours, Samson said the DFO has made changes over the years to allow Class B fishers to keep their licences longer, such as the Medical Substitute Operator Policy.

“Right now, a Class B licence holder can have someone else fish their licence, as long as they’re living,” he noted.

For the approximately 80 Class B fishermen remaining, Samson said the burden of these limitations is still felt.

“Today I continue to fish to support my two sons who both have severe and chronic disabilities,” said Donald Publicover of Brookside, Nova Scotia. “If I could sell my licence, I could afford an accessibility home for them, but I am being punished for working other jobs to support my family.”

Samson said the Class B fishers see the policy as “outdated punishment.”

“It hangs over my head, that when I am gone, I leave nothing to my son,” said Clayton Smith of Salmon Beach, New Brunswick. “It all goes to the grave with me – boat, traps, licence. This is not fair.”

Samson said there is a “sense of urgency” given the age of this group. As more Class B licence holders pass on, he said the benefits of their licences are permanently lost with them.

“Time is not on our side. Most of our clients are either in their 70s, 80s, or 90s. We started working on this initiative in the summer of 2020, and since that time, we’ve had five licence holders pass away,” he confirmed.

More information on the effort by the lobster licence holders can be found at: www.fishing4fairness.ca.