Lobster wars Chance to Conserve and Consolidate Gains, not Target Each Other

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel, Lirika Shkreli

The new year is an excellent opportunity to resolve ongoing problems surrounding Indigenous access to the lobster fisheries in Atlantic Canada. 

Near the latter part of last year, rising tensions between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishers in Atlantic Canada demonstrated that reconciliation between Indigenous rights and the interests of the non-Indigenous fishing community has not been achieved.  

The non-Indigenous fishing industry would have the public believe that conservation is at the heart of the problem. This is not really the case, although conservation must guide everyone in seeking a solution. Conservation of this natural resource for future generations must be paramount, but it is not fair to claim that Indigenous fishers are the sole problem.  

Indeed, out-of-season poaching does happen and it is a problem. But it is not the threat as presented by some and it can be overcome with effective regulation, including on the Indigenous side. Indigenous communities must police their own to provide confidence to both Fisheries and Oceans Canada and commercial fishers. 

If managed properly and with conservation in mind, there is enough to sustain both Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers for generations to come. 

The Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaw band launched their own lobster fishery in St. Mary’s Bay in southwestern Nova Scotia with 10 fishing vessels outside the federally regulated fishing season, which was closed for annual conservation reasons as lobsters are mating and molting their shells.

The commercial fishers argued that fishing lobster during this period will harm the overall stock, although this claim is disputed by biologists. 

It is important to compare the size of the non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishery to that of the Indigenous. The non-Indigenous commercial lobster fishery is huge. For example, in the commercial sector, each vessel is authorized to fish 350 traps, which is a total of 35,000 traps. On the First Nation side, there are 10 Sipekne’katik vessels fishing 500 traps per vessel. Across Nova Scotia, Indigenous lobster fishers are a drop in the bucket compared to the behemoth that is the non-Indigenous commercial sector. 

It seems that many of the arguments about threats to conservation posed by new Indigenous fishers is about limiting new entrants into the tightly controlled market. The commercial sector should not be allowed to limit new fishermen to maintain its dominant position. 

To gain some perspective, it is important to look at other case studies. The northeastern United States has a vibrant lobster fishing industry. The example of Maine is an important one to look at. Lobster fishing is integral to the Maine economy and Maine lobstermen usually catch more than 80 percent of America’s lobster haul.

In 2019, lobster accounted for 73 percent of all commercial landings in Maine by value. Put another way, Maine’s lobster fishery was worth a record of more than $530 million at the docks in 2016.  

The COVID-19 pandemic posed the greatest threat in recent memory to the lobster industry. Indigenous fishing out of season was not any significant threat. The near shutdown of restaurants and entertainment services drove down the demand for lobster and lowered the price significantly. However, demand increased and prices rose significantly to the point where they were before the pandemic. Merchants were even quite entrepreneurial in increasing curbside and home delivery to make up for reduced sales. 

Additionally, environmental change has posed a big threat to lobster fisheries in both Canada and the northeastern United States. Lobster catch drastically declined in Southern New England; scientists attribute this to rising ocean temperatures to levels that have been favourable for lobsters off northern New England and Canada but not southern New England. Conservation interventions allowed Maine to preserve its lobster resource which led to record hauls, relative to other jurisdictions that did not take similar measures. 

For Canadian observers, it is relevant to mention that the Maine state fishery has no seasons as they maintain a year-round fishery and fishermen have about three times as many traps as Atlantic Canada. This serves as an example for Canadian policymakers that it is possible to craft responsible conservation policies without sacrificing harvesting intensity or yield. 

Maine’s lobster conservation policies involved working together with stakeholders for decades to create a strategy to protect older, larger lobsters and egg-carrying females. 

These studies demonstrate that although lobsters are extremely sensitive to warming oceans, human intervention can help protect the overall population. For instance, the notching technique has been used in Maine for a century. Maine lobstermen return big lobsters to the sea after marking a “v notch” on the tail of an egg-carrying lobster, which serves as a sign to other fishermen to leave fertile lobsters alone.

In 1995, Maine passed a Zone Management Law which changed many aspects of the governance of the Maine lobster industry, including creating an individual 1,200-trap limit per licensed fisherman for the entire state; a trap tag program to identify owners of traps; and an apprenticeship program for new entrants into the lobster industry. They also divided the coast into seven lobster management zones.

Furthermore, the new law established eligibility criteria to qualify for a lobster and crab fishing license and created a co-management system that gives members of the lobster fishery powers to manage some aspects of the fishery, while others were retained by the state of Maine.

This policy regime is not unlike Canada’s where there are management zones, as well as trap and boat limits. The Indigenous angle certainly adds a new level of complexity, but there is no reason to suppose that both government and Indigenous parties cannot arrive at a point where they can protect Indigenous fishing rights and ensure a sustainable fishery. 

The answer is not to target Indigenous fishers seeking access to the waters, but for both communities to come together to protect and conserve a common resource. Divided amongst ourselves we become vulnerable to other jurisdictions who engage in lobster fishing, especially in the United States. 

The answer is for Indigenous fishers in Atlantic Canada to move beyond subsistence and moderate livelihood fishing. On November 9th, Nova Scotia-based Membertou First Nation and a coalition of First Nations announced a $1 billion purchase of Clearwater Seafoods Inc. The purchase was achieved in partnership with Vancouver-based Premium Brands Holdings Corp. This purchase gives this Indigenous conglomerate a 50 percent stake in the seafood business and quota holder. Membertou Chief Terry Paul said the Mi’kmaq will hold Clearwater’s Canadian fishing licenses within a fully Mi’kmaq-owned partnership.

Some informed business observers are saying that the acquisition did not come out of the blue. The Mi’kmaq nation of Membertou – located in an urbanized part of Sydney, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island – has long been a significant economic player among Indigenous communities. In fact, Membertou is one of the more prosperous First Nations in Eastern Canada, with $67 million in revenue last year from diversified interests ranging from fishing to real estate.

The Membertou model is the model for all Indigenous communities to aspire to. Like in every other economic area, Indigenous communities need to get involved and invested in a whole diverse area of business interests to provide steady streams of income for their communities and hedge against bad times and changing conditions. This is also the approach of the phenomenally successful New Zealand Maori tribal groups. 

True Indigenous economic reconciliation is achieved when First Nation communities cease being beggars on their own traditional lands and become mature economic players. The Clearwater purchase moves Mi’kmaq fishers from marginal players fighting for minimal access to the waters to owners and operators who control the market. 

Although Indigenous fishers are entitled to their rights-based moderate livelihood fishery, they should always aspire for a more dominant position in the commercial sector on equal terms with non-Indigenous fishers. That is more inherently dignifying for these communities. 

The new year should see Indigenous communities fight for both their constitutionally entrenched treaty rights, but also for their rights to be full participants in the new economy. That is a truer path to reconciliation and Ottawa should act like that now. 


Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Lirika Shkreli is a research assistant at the Frontier Centre.

Photo by Mark Timberlake on Unsplash.