Magazine article Alternatives Journal

United We Fish: The Fight against the Privatization of the Fisheries Is Creating New Alliances between Native and Non-Native Fishing Communities in Southwest Nova Scotia

Magazine article Alternatives Journal

United We Fish: The Fight against the Privatization of the Fisheries Is Creating New Alliances between Native and Non-Native Fishing Communities in Southwest Nova Scotia

Article excerpt

HUBERT SAULNIER'S family has been fishing in the Bay of Fundy for as long as there have been Acadians in Nova Scotia. These days a lobster licence, like the one Hubert bought for 25 cents in the early 1960s, goes for just under one million dollars. If you're lucky enough to have one, you can make a good living.

Of course, there's not much of a family fishery left in the Maritimes. People used to make a living catching cod and other ground fish, scallops, and herring. In the past 20 years thousands of independent fishers have been squeezed out of those fisheries and replaced by a handful of large corporations.

Lobster remains a family fishery. It is the backbone of many coastal economies and cultures--and it is guarded with a sense of urgency. So when the Supreme Court handed down its Marshall decision in September 1999 affirming First Nations' treaty rights--including the right to fish commercially--tensions rose in coastal communities across the Maritimes.

The Marshall decision has changed the face of the in-shore fishery, and it hasn't been a smooth transition. Conflict and confrontation made the news headlines. But in some places the decision has provided the context for a coming together of native and non-native fishing communities. These budding alliances are fast becoming a movement to build more sustainable and inclusive Atlantic fisheries in the face of ever-increasing corporatization of the industry and privatization of fisheries management.

In Esgenoopetitj--also known as Burnt Church--a Mi'kmaq village on New Brunswick's Miramichi Bay, the Marshall decision was greeted with high hopes and much celebration. With few options for work in the area, the chance to catch enough lobsters to feed the family and sell a few on the side was big news. But for Burnt Church First Nation the ruling meant much more than a modest economic opportunity. It meant that finally Canada recognized their right to live according to Mi'kmaq culture and traditions, including their right to fish.

Community leaders undertook an extensive mobilization process--going door-to-door consulting clan mothers, elders, youth and families0--to develop a fishery management plan that would reflect the interests and concerns of the entire community. What emerged was a holistic vision of fishing incorporated into community life and culture--a vision fundamentally at odds with the role fishing plays under Fisheries and Oceans Canada (popularly referred to as DFO) regulation. (1)

Under their plan, Burnt Church would fish a total of 15,000 traps per season: 10,000 traps during the spring commercial fishery and 5000 during a traditional fall fishery. (2) But instead of DFO's system where individual licences are distributed to a handful of specialized fishers, fishing privileges would be shared more broadly within the community.

Fishing plays a unique role in many First Nation communities: the catch is divided between food, ceremonial and commercial purposes. For both cultural and economic reasons, it is important to have a management plan that ensures the widest possible participation and employment in the industry.

The Burnt Church management plan received the enthusiastic approval of environmental groups. (3) But non-native fishers from neighbouring communities reacted with violence, intimidation and vandalism when Burnt Church fishers took to the water in the summers of 2000 and 2001. As no new lobster licences had been issued since the 1970s, the native fishery was perceived as a threat to non-native livelihoods. DFO declared the Burnt Church fishery illegal and the Supreme Court issued its first-ever public clarification of a court judgment.

The crisis at Burnt Church has largely dissipated. With the community exhausted after two years of attacks and straining under conditions of tremendous poverty, the local Chief signed a two-year fishing agreement with DFO that put 21 specialized fishers on the water with DFO licences, in addition to the 13 commercial licences that existed in the community prior to the Marshall ruling. …

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