RCMP investigating after Mi'kmaq lobster fishing boats cut loose from wharf in N.S.

The RCMP are opening a criminal investigation into a report that nine lobster fishing boats operated by Mi'kmaq fishers were purposely cut loose from a wharf Thursday in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Sipekne'katik First Nation Chief Mike Sack has alleged the boats were cast adrift from their berths in Weymouth North, N.S., to damage the band's property and intimidate its fishers.

The Mounties said in an email Friday they are taking the complaint seriously and looking into the matter.

Later in the day, the RCMP issued a news releasing adding that a lobster crate containing $800 worth of lobster was stolen from one of the boats

The police force is encouraging citizens to report anything they know about the allegations.

Sack says the boats were ready to take part in the band's food, social and ceremonial lobster fishery, which is regulated by federal rules but not limited to a particular season.

The band attracted national attention last fall when it started a separate, self-regulated commercial lobster fishery on St. Marys Bay, three months before the federally regulated season was scheduled to open.

The move to create a so-called moderate livelihood fishery was met by violent protests among some non-Indigenous fishers and their supporters, which resulted in scores of arrests.

At the time, Sack said First Nations in the Maritimes and Quebec never gave up the right to fish, gather and hunt when and where they want, as spelled out in treaties signed with the Crown in the 1700s.

As well, he noted that the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed those treaty rights in a landmark ruling in 1999, known as the Marshall decision -- but the court also said Ottawa retained the right to regulate the fisheries for conservation purposes.

In a separate decision by the same court, known as Sparrow, First Nations are allowed to fish outside the regular commercial season to feed their communities or to supply ceremonial gatherings -- but they are barred from selling those catches.

Disputes in Nova Scotia over the food, social and ceremonial (FCS) fishery surfaced in 2017 when non-Indigenous fishermen started a series of peaceful protests to draw attention to their claims that a small faction of Indigenous fishers were selling their FCS catches.

On Thursday, Sack said what happened at the Weymouth wharf will delay the FCS fishery for one week.

"This is unfortunately what we have to deal with, harassment and property damage with no recourse or substantive protection to safeguard our people," he said in a statement.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it strongly condemns what it called "the activity" at the Weymouth wharf.

"The Government of Canada is firmly committed to advancing reconciliation, implementing rights-based fisheries, and ensuring that every person feels safe on the wharf and on the water," Stephen Bornais, a department spokesman, wrote in an email.

"Threatening and criminal activity will not be tolerated. Damage or destruction of gear or boats is illegal and any harvester who has had their property destroyed or tampered with should report the incidents to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

Bornais said the department will continue working to promote a peaceful and orderly fishery, and with the RCMP and local police to monitor and address criminal activity in the area.

The RCMP could not be immediately reached for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.