P.E.I. First Nation to launch fishery without government approval

Lennox Island First Nation, based in Prince Edward Island, is going ahead with plans to open a lobster fishery without government approval. Members of the First Nation, however, are preparing for officials to enforce regulations as a result.

The fishery, located off P.E.I.’s North Shore, is expected to launch operations on May 7. There are currently 32 boats in Lennox Island’s commercial and traditional lobster fishery, used to harvest oysters, snow crab, clams and other fish.

“They do have a clear treaty right – that was decided in what's now called the Marshall decision that came down nearly 20 years ago,” said freelance journalist Emily Baron Cadloff, who is based in Halifax. “[But] there are a number of things that regulators can object to, the biggest one is the issue of conservation and that's what's at play here.”

The treaty right allows community members to harvest lobster for a moderate livelihood without the federal government’s approval, but existing regulations place limits on when, where and the extent to which community members can fish. The Supreme Court also clarified that the federal government could still regulate Mi’kmaw fishers if there were concerns around conservation.

Lennox Island First Nation expressed interest in launching the lobster fishery in 2020, and has since been negotiating with Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) on terms and conditions. After waiting for the federal government to sign off on the project for two years, the community has moved ahead with creating its own management plan, which includes requirements to abide by DFO regulations pertaining to trap size and placement, as well as use of the community's own wharf and infrastructure. The community is also limited to placing a maximum of 1,000 traps throughout the year.

“If the Lennox Island fishers put all 1,000 traps in the water, that's only an additional four boats, so they really don't see that as a risk to any conservation or any risk of overfishing, especially compared to the tens of thousands of commercial traps that are currently in the water,” said Cadloff. “They say that they want the same chance to fish that everyone else gets.”

The P.E.I. Fishermen’s Association issued a press release on April 28 stating that it is “unfortunate” that further discussions between governments, fishing associations and First Nations about fishing requirements has not taken place. The association also stated it does not support any additional fishing and expects the DFO to enforce existing regulations.

The DFO has said that unauthorized fishing could be subject to regulations, which may include fines, the impounding of equipment and even arrests, Cadloff said.

Several First Nations communities in Nova Scotia, such as Potlotek, Bear River, Annapolis Valley and Acadia First Nations, have settled on agreements with the DFO in the past for similar fisheries. The plan developed by Lennox Island is modelled after these deals, said Chief Darlene Bernard.

However, First Nations community members have clashed with the federal fisheries department in the past. In August of 2021, for example, officers seized dozens of lobster traps in Nova Scotia where Sipekne'katik First Nation fishers were operating a self-regulated fishery.

“With the situation in Nova Scotia last year, everyone involved is likely much more aware of what the potential [response] can be,” Cadloff said. “Last year in Nova Scotia, there were protests, there were injuries, a lobster pound was burned to the ground. I think that all parties likely are aware of those precedents and looking to avoid them.”