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Mi'kmaq fishing boats moored at the wharf in Saulnierville, N.S. as a part of the Sipekne'katik First Nation's moderate-livelihood fishery on September 7.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Federal fisheries officers have been removed from the water in a part of Nova Scotia where a Mi’kmaq fleet is harvesting lobster outside the commercial season, just days after the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations slammed the federal government for “harassment and intimidation.”

The change in enforcement strategy comes following videos of a confrontation at sea between Mi’kmaq fishermen and federal enforcement officers shared widely on social media by AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald. She visited Saulnierville, N.S., last week to support the Sipekne’katik First Nation’s moderate livelihood fishery there.

The effort to ease tension in the showdown over Indigenous treaty rights and fisheries regulators comes as tight election races are unfolding in several ridings around the Maritimes – including for federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan, who is fighting for her seat on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Mi’kmaq leaders say their communities will no longer support the Liberals because of what they see as heavy-handed enforcement measures in the treaty fisheries.

In recent months, enforcement officers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) have seized hundreds of traps, released thousands of lobsters and arrested 20 people in the St. Marys Bay area. Similar enforcement measures have been reported in the Northumberland Strait, where Pictou Landing First Nation is pursuing its own commercial fishery. In late August, DFO officers seized a lobster boat belonging to Wolastoqey fishermen in New Brunswick.

Working with the Coast Guard, DFO officers had been operating marine patrols in areas where Indigenous fisheries are common, issuing warnings and laying charges as needed, the department says. On the weekend, the department redeployed officers off the water and shifted more resources to a land-based approach to monitoring fishing activity.

Commercial fishermen expressed frustration Monday at what they say is a politically motivated decision to ease enforcement of the Indigenous fishery. They allege the treaty fishery, operating outside federally regulated seasons, is fuelling a black market for lobster that’s blending Mi’kmaq-caught shellfish into the larger lobster supply, hurting conservation efforts and pushing down prices.

“There’s no question that politics drives a lot of these decisions,” said Kevin Squires, a local president for the Maritime Fishermen’s Union and a Cape Breton lobsterman.

“I don’t think we’re terribly surprised that’s the case, but that doesn’t mean we’re not frustrated by it. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a government that’s trying to get re-elected.”

Mr. Squires, who began fishing in 1976, said commercial fishermen are concerned the growing Indigenous fishery will disrupt the stability of a lobster industry that has thrived because of restrictions on harvests, while so many other fisheries have been mismanaged and suffered. He said most fishermen don’t oppose the Mi’kmaq right to fish for lobster, but they want it done within the same restrictions as everyone else. Fishermen are willing to share the lobster resource as part of Canada’s reconciliation with First Nations, he said, but are frustrated their industry is being targeted more than others without any consultation.

“Limited entry has made the lobster fishery profitable and sustainable,” he said. “We need time to adjust to a new reality, but the commercial side has not been given any opportunity to participate in those discussions.”

The Sipekne’katik First Nation counters that it’s catching a small fraction of the lobster harvested each year by the local commercial fleet. It and other First Nations in the region say they’re exercising their right to fish year-round based on treaties signed with the British Crown in the 18th century, a right upheld by the Supreme Court in 1999 in what’s known as the Marshall Decision.

A follow-up decision by the same court declared Indigenous treaty rights were not unlimited, and that Indigenous fishing can be regulated for conservation reasons. Some First Nations reject the argument that Ottawa has any jurisdiction to manage their fisheries, however, while other bands received millions in federal support, licences and boats to help them gain access to the commercial fishing sector.

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack has acknowledged his band is selling 25 per cent of its catch to cover costs –something not permitted by federal regulation – but fishermen’s unions complain the cash-based sales are difficult to monitor or measure.

The DFO says it hasn’t removed resources from the St. Marys Bay area, but acknowledged the change in tactics. It didn’t elaborate on the reason.

“Fishery officers have a range of monitoring and compliance tactics that they use, on and off the water, depending on the particular situation,” said Lauren Sankey, a spokesperson for the department.

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