Mi'kmaw fishermen say they're being threatened, prevented from selling catch in Cape Breton

Some Mi'kmaw lobster fishermen say they're still being prevented from earning a moderate livelihood, more than two weeks after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans began investigating allegations of trap tampering near Louisbourg, N.S.

Last month, Eskasoni First Nation fisherman Charles Francis said 70 of his 178 traps were damaged.

Since then, some Mi'kmaw fishermen say they have been threatened, denied fuel sales and mechanical work on their boats, and are being prevented from selling their catch by some people in or associated with the commercial fishery.

"It's pure racism," said Michael Basque, the moderate livelihood fishery co-ordinator for Unama'ki, which is the Mi'kmaw name for Cape Breton. "It's just they don't want the native there."

Under a moderate livelihood authorization between DFO and Mi'kmaw harvesters, designated First Nations community members can catch and sell lobster during the commercial season without increasing the number of traps licensed in lobster fishing areas (LFAs) and without harming the stock's conservation level.

Charles Francis, left, says he and his crew are being denied their right to earn a moderate livelihood by non-Indigenous fishers who cut their traps and threatened their buyer.
Charles Francis, left, says he and his crew are being denied their right to earn a moderate livelihood in Cape Breton. Last month, dozens of Francis's lobster traps appeared to be deliberately damaged, with their wooden frames smashed and the mesh cut. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Fabian Francis, Eskasoni's moderate livelihood co-ordinator, said several of the First Nation's boats have been targeted, with about 400 traps lost so far this season. He attributed the losses to non-Indigenous fishers.

"We're not the bad guys," he said. "We're not trying to take any food off their plate. We're just trying to get a piece of the pie, and we're asking for a small piece and respect and safety.

"I'm in fear for the safety of my fishers."

Francis said M'ikmaw harvesters follow DFO regulations and make up less than five per cent of the fishery in LFA 27, which runs from the northern tip of Cape Breton to Louisbourg on the east side of the Island.

"We have very, very little impact, but yet we're shown racism like it's the 1940s and '50s in Alabama. It's ridiculous. You know, it's 2024," he said.

Co-ordinator calls for more education

Basque said not all commercial fishermen are against the moderate livelihood fishery, but those who are don't seem to know that the Mi'kmaq have a legal right to share in the catch.

Francis said DFO needs to do more work to educate the public about the treaty right to fish.

DFO's Maritimes director of conservation and protection, Tim Kerr, said the department is out on the wharves and the water and has had some success getting the message out.

"That being said, we can always improve communications with the public and so we'll continue to work with our communications team here and with fishing organizations and associations to make sure that all harvesters are informed of the First Nations' ability and authorization to exercise their moderate livelihood."

Kerr says DFO enforcement officers are on the wharves and on the water, as seen in this department file photo from Margaretsville, N.S.
DFO says enforcement officers are on the wharves and on the water, as seen in this department file photo from Margaretsville, N.S. (DFO Maritimes)

Kerr said trap tampering not only deprives people of their livelihood, but can also harm the fish stock.

"If you're making your livelihood on the water, you should be very concerned that gear tampering doesn't happen and work yourself to try to prevent it."

Kerr said officers are still investigating alleged trap vandalism near Louisbourg this season. Those convicted can face fines and be suspended from fishing.

Last month, a Cape Breton fisherman was fined $7,000 and ordered to pay $600 in restitution after tampering with traps last fall in a Mi'kmaw food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fishery. He was also suspended from the herring fishery for two weeks.

'Consequences ... can be severe'

In another case, a fisherman from the Island was fined $6,200 for tampering with FSC traps last year. He was also ordered off the water and the wharf between July and January, Kerr said.

That fisherman pleaded guilty last month for failing to comply with the order and lost his licence for four months and is prohibited from putting his boat in Nova Scotia waters.

"If you are arrested and you are charged for gear tampering, then the consequences for your own livelihood, if you are a fisherman yourself, can be severe," Kerr said.