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A stack of lobster traps rests on the edge of Pictou Harbour at the community's wharf in Pictou Landing First Nation, N.S. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Gary Denny was trying to keep his 16-foot aluminum boat from getting swamped by a big wave when he heard the first gunshot. Then quickly came two more.

“It was just, ‘Bam!’ I could hear the bullet skimming across the water‚” he said. “It was the second shot that got me thinking, ‘I’ve got kids back home.’ ”

Moments earlier, Mr. Denny, a Mi’kmaq fisherman from Pictou Landing First Nation, had been speeding out into the Northumberland Strait to identify a boat that was cutting his lobster traps on Sunday. The bigger boat charged at him at full speed, he said, then turned sharply, creating a large wave that risked sinking him.

That’s when someone on the boat shot at him three times. None of the shots hit Mr. Denny, who quickly retreated back home and called the police.

The shooting is the latest flashpoint in Nova Scotia’s lobster war over Mi’kmaq fishermen’s treaty right to fish outside the federally regulated season. Nova Scotia RCMP say four men have been arrested but not yet charged in the incident, which has sent a chill through Mr. Denny’s community on the province’s north shore.

Most of the violence in the fishing dispute has been on the other end of the province, where non-Indigenous fishermen have been protesting Sipekneꞌkatik First Nation’s “moderate livelihood” fishery. Fish plants have been ransacked, boats have been burned, and Mi’kmaq fishermen say they’ve been shot at with flares on the water.

Until now, conflict over the Pictou Landing First Nation’s moderate livelihood fishery hasn’t received much attention since it launched Nov. 4, about a month and a half after Sipekneꞌkatik’s. About six fishermen in the community took advantage of the band’s new small-scale commercial fishery, getting licences to harvest up to 30 lobster traps each.

Most of those traps have been cut at night by vigilantes before the Pictou Landing fishermen can harvest them, said Mr. Denny, 34, who can see his buoys from his backyard. That’s why he was surprised on late Sunday afternoon to see someone pulling his traps from the water in daylight.

“When I went out there, I just wanted to see who it was. I never thought this would happen. At first they wanted to run me down,” he said. “It was a scary moment. Gunshots? I never thought it would come to this.”

The Nova Scotia RCMP say a 51-year-old man from Pictou County turned himself in Sunday night, several hours after the shooting. Three more men, also from Pictou County, were arrested in nearby Caribou, N.S., on Monday. They have not been named.

Mr. Denny’s fiancée, Sylvia Bernard, said she was out on the water with her young son about 20 minutes before the confrontation, and heard the gunshots from their balcony.

The owner of the fishing vessel involved in the shooting is well-known in the community for his opposition to the moderate livelihood fishery, she said. Until recently, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen in the area were often allied in their opposition to a proposed effluent pipeline from the nearby Northern Pulp mill, which they say would have risked contaminating the waterway they shared.

Non-Indigenous fishermen around Nova Scotia have been vocal in their opposition to the Mi’kmaq moderate livelihood fishery, which they say should only be allowed to operate within government-regulated seasons, and be subject to the same limitations and federal oversight as everyone else.

The launch of Pictou Landing’s moderate livelihood fishery on Nov. 4 has been hampered by chronic vandalism, Ms. Bernard said.

“Everyone’s traps just kept getting cut and cut. But we could never catch the guy,” she said. “It’s not like we’re cleaning out the ocean. We only put about 12 traps in [the water] each.”

Two federal fisheries boats were patrolling the water near Pictou Landing on Monday. But that did little to ease the anxiety in the community, where some are wondering if they should put guns in their boats to protect themselves.

“It’s tense here,” said Edgar Denny, a 60-year-old fisherman who lives in Pictou Landing. “If they’re shooting at us, does that mean I should arm myself and start shooting back? Retaliation doesn’t get you anywhere.”

The shooting comes at the end of Pictou Landing’s moderate livelihood fishery, which closed for the season Monday. Gary Denny admitted he was a little anxious to be heading back out one last time to collect his traps.

But he says he’ll be back on the water next spring. He said as Mi’kmaq, he’s learned to deal with racism on the water. But gunshots, that’s a troubling escalation, he said.

“People don’t like what we’re doing, I understand that. But we’re not going to give up,” Mr. Denny said. “This is about more than just lobster. This is history being made. I want my kids to be able to fish without going through what we’re going through.”

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