POTLOTEK FIRST NATION: Those fishing under the Netukulimk Livelihood Fisheries Plan are back on the water days after the federal government returned traps they confiscated last fall.

According to a press release issued last week by the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, harvesters from Potlotek First Nation returned to their fishery on June 5 after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans authorized Potlotek’s harvesters to fish and sell their catches.

“We didn’t sign any agreements – I told my community members that we wouldn’t. Through talks, we were able to come to an understanding with DFO,” said Potltek Chief Wilbert Marshall. “We were open and transparent. We built a solid plan that laid out our tagging and reporting structures, and are developing enforcement protocols with DFO’s Conservation and Protection branch. We went through all the formal processes and consulted on every part of what our harvesters wanted to do.”

The assembly said Potlotek has been working with residents to develop a Netukulimk Livelihood Fisheries Plan that outlines and provides community authority and management for their fishery. Since the launch of the Mi’kmaw Treaty Rights-based fishery last fall, the assembly said many Mi’kmaw harvesters had gear and equipment seized.

Fisheries and Oceans Minister Bernadette Jordan said this cooperative path forward speaks to the moderate livelihood fishing aspirations of the community.

“As an interim measure, we will be recognizing those harvesters designated under Potlotek’s plan to be authorized to fish 700 (lobster) traps without adding additional access and during the established season underway in Lobster Fishing Areas 27, 28, 29, 30 and 31a – which is within the Unama’ki region and aligns with Potlotek’s identified traditional district,” Jordan said in a statement.

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

“We know that this is an interim measure, but it is a good first step. We will be working with DFO to see that the needs and expectations of our communities are met, in relation to the number of traps currently allocated. I have been clear to the minister that 700 traps is insufficient,” said Marshall. “We want to see our people be able to earn a good, honest living. For us, that included doing so through what has been a part of our culture since time immemorial – fishing.”

Jordan said the department is committed to continuing consultations with the community, including community concerns about access.

“This marks an important step forward that demonstrates Canada’s willingness to listen to the individual needs of communities, to support their vision, and find common ground that maintains a sustainable fishery and sees community members on the water and able to sell their catch,” she noted. “In working together to implement this moderate livelihood fishing plan, we will lay the groundwork for future advancements. Reaching this understanding, which recognizes the rights and interests of Indigenous communities, will help to further advance Potlotek’s vision of self-determination and economic self-reliance.”

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

The traps were seized by DFO’s Conservation and Protection Branch during the fall fishery and belonged to Mi’kmaw harvesters from both Potlotek and Eskasoni First Nations.

“We have been demanding that these traps be returned since the moment they were taken by (Conservation and Protection),” said Chief Gerald Toney, Fisheries Lead for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs. “While we know that there is still a long way to go with the Government of Canada’s acknowledgement and recognition of our constitutionally protected Right to fish for a moderate livelihood, today is a good day for our harvesters.”

The Netukulimk Livelihood Fishery is managed by Mi’kmaw communities, but all fishing gear, equipment and supplies are purchased and owned by those harvesters, the assembly stated.

“Seeing the gear be returned today to our community harvesters is a bit of relief,” said Chief Leroy Denny, Eskasoni First Nation. “Our people are fishing to better their lives and the lives of their families – and they have every right to do so. DFO stopping that, instead of working with our communities to support that, is shameful.”

DFO spokesperson Robin Jahn confirmed the traps were returned last week.

“The traps were initially seized in fall 2020 as they were found being fished in contravention of the Fisheries Act,” he told The Reporter.

The assembly added it is unsure what messages will be conveyed to harvesters by DFO with the return of this gear.

“This act has continued to infringe on our Treaty Right to fish for moderate livelihood and our harvesters just want to earn a living,” Marshall added.