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A Department of Fisheries & Oceans plane flies over the indigenous lobster fleet in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, on Aug. 16.

JOHN MORRIS/Reuters

Tension over a growing Indigenous lobster fishery remains high on the wharfs and bays of southwestern Nova Scotia, where Sipekne’katik First Nation plans to launch their second season of a self-regulated commercial fishery this week.

Earlier this month, 10 Mi’kmaq boats were cut from their moorings at a wharf in Weymouth, N.S., an act Indigenous leaders say was intended to intimidate their community. The head of one of the largest commercial fishermen’s unions in Nova Scotia says he’s worried about violence on the water if Ottawa doesn’t step in to stop what he describes as a growing black market for lobster.

A year ago, violence erupted after the Sipekne’katik fleet began fishing lobster outside the federally-regulated season – which begins in November – in St. Marys Bay, one of the most lucrative lobster grounds in the world. Non-Indigenous protesters ransacked two lobster warehouses and burned one to the ground, and hundreds of Sipekne’katik lobster traps were cut loose and stolen.

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Colin Sproul, president of the Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance, said he doesn’t want to see a return of that kind of vigilantism this year, but is concerned some fishermen are frustrated by what they see as a lack of enforcement and may try to take the law into their own hands.

“The feds knew about the potential for violence last year, and did nothing. This has left fishermen reeling,” he said. “There is a large-scale commercial fishery taking place right now, outside the law, no matter what the fisheries minister says. Our communities are seeing tractor-trailer loads of lobster leaving the area at night.”

Sipekne’katik First Nation, along with other First Nations in Nova Scotia, are exercising their treaty right to earn a living from the sea, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court’s 1999 Marshall decision. They dispute that Ottawa has jurisdiction to regulate their fishery, while the federal government insists that power was also affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Sipekne’katik Chief Mike Sack acknowledged his people are selling out-of-season lobster for cash, which Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or DFO, says is illegal, but said they’re only exercising their right to fish as a way to provide for their families in one of the poorest communities in the province.

The total catch from his community last year, which uses smaller boats and limits vessel operators to 50 traps each, was less than one million pounds of lobster – a far cry from the local commercial fishery that caught around 60 million pounds, he said.

Mr. Sack said he’s worried more clashes will come if commercial fishermen don’t back down. He said some leaders in commercial fishing organizations are using “scare tactics” to provoke people to take action.

“That’s the biggest fear I have, around what’s going to happen,” he said. “There’s already a lot of harassment going on, there’s a lot of intimidation, following our people around.”

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Heather McCready, DFO’s director-general of conservation and protection, said fisheries officers are trying to enforce the law, but wouldn’t discuss specifics of their operations on the water. People trying to take the law into their own hands detract from the department’s ability to enforce the rules, she said.

“If people start engaging in acts of vigilantism, that pulls RCMP away from our fisheries officers, which means we can do less. It’s illegal, people are going to get hurt and it’s also counterproductive,” she said. “The best thing people can do is remain calm and give officers the space to do their job.”

Ms. McCready acknowledged there’s a black market for lobster in Atlantic Canada, but said it’s being supplied by both Indigenous and commercial fishermen. She believes most Indigenous fishermen harvesting under their treaty rights are obeying the rules.

There are leaders on both sides working to calm things down and avoid more confrontations, she said. The problem is a handful of people who are promoting polarizing views that do nothing to help negotiations to find common ground and resolve the dispute.

“At the end of the day, we all have to live together. But we’re seeing communities really being ripped apart by this issue,” she said.

The Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance says the out-of-season fishery on St. Marys Bay is damaging lobster when they’re in a sensitive moulting period, shedding their old shells and growing new ones. Mr. Sack said there’s no data to back up that claim – and pointed to a new Dalhousie University study that suggests lobsters harvested from the bay in August are hard-shelled and healthy.

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He said commercial fishermen shouldn’t feel their livelihood is threatened by the Indigenous fishery.

“We’re not trying to duplicate the commercial fishery, we’re talking about 1 per cent of what they’re doing,” he said. “We’re trying to break a cycle of generational trauma, and this looks like a good avenue to do it.”

Mr. Sproul, for his part, said both sides need to respect each other’s right to earn a living from the sea. Fishermen’s anger, he said, should not be directed at each other, but at a federal fisheries minister whom he says has allowed the lobster dispute to grow out of control.

“Our fight is not with Indigenous communities. It’s with minister Bernadette Jordan, and her lack of will to enforce existing law,” he said.

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