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A load of lobster fishing gear, seized by federal fisheries officers, is returned to the Sipekne'katik First Nation in Indian Brook, N.S., on on May 27, 2021.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Ottawa has set up a panel of Indigenous representatives, scientists and commercial fishers to discuss lobster conservation as Mi’kmaq fishers prepare for a return to a summer harvest off southwestern Nova Scotia.

The Federal Fisheries Department says the virtual round table includes academic and federal researchers along with Mi’kmaq fisheries science groups, and it will take place on June 15 to discuss priorities for studying the lucrative species.

Megan Bailey, a Dalhousie University professor who is working with Sipekne’katik First Nation to study the impact of its summer lobster fishery in Nova Scotia’s St. Marys Bay, says she has been invited and plans to take part.

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The Mi’kmaq community maintains its traps aren’t having a significant impact on the stocks, though non-Indigenous fishers from the area have argued the fishery outside of the main commercial season poses long-term risk to the fishery.

Prof. Bailey said in an e-mail Friday she looks forward to working with federal fisheries researchers, academic researchers and fishing communities and called the round table a good start.

Thursday’s announcement of the discussion group came the same day Sipekne’katik said it would scale back a planned moderate livelihood fishery, from 50 traps per boat, to a food, social and ceremonial fishery, with about five traps per person.

The band says it still plans to conduct its research this summer with Prof. Bailey’s assistance to determine the impact its fishing has on the species.

The Mi’kmaq First Nation has argued it has the right to fish for a moderate livelihood when and where members wish, based on a landmark 1999 Supreme Court decision. The court later clarified that ruling to say Ottawa could regulate the treaty right for conservation and other limited public policy purposes.

In a news conference on Thursday, federal Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan said she is seeking a negotiated solution, and she’s aware that several First Nations are developing fishery programs that include conservation plans.

“We’re continuing to have conversation with the First Nations ... We’re looking at their fishing plans and they’re very good. There’s a lot of middle ground where we can work towards a long-term solution,” she told reporters.

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The Fisheries Department news release says the partnership aims to develop a common picture of “the most important lobster science research questions, identify new areas of work, and discuss how we can work together.”

It says the forum will discuss topics including the impacts of climate change on lobster, how changes in habitat might affect lobster populations in the future and how lobster move throughout the year, as well as the impact fishing is having on the populations.

Lobster is the country’s most valuable seafood export, and it is exported around the world.

The landings remain at one of the highest levels recorded in 100 years, with an upward trend over recent decades.

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