Troubled waters: Why a clash over crustaceans is roiling Canada

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP
Members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation head out from the wharf in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, after the launch of a self-regulated fishery in September 2020.

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For thousands of years, the Mi’kmaq have hunted and fished across Atlantic Canada. But this year, the waters off the coast of Nova Scotia have become a flashpoint for Indigenous rights.

Canada’s “lobster wars” erupted around the September inauguration of a lobster fishery aimed at helping members of the Indigenous community earn a modest living. It was intentionally launched outside the official lobstering season – an assertion of Indigenous rights that had been upheld by the Canadian Supreme Court 21 years before but only limitedly exercised.

Why We Wrote This

Canada has sought to redress historic grievances among its Indigenous populations. Its handling of a dispute over fishing rights in Nova Scotia shows the challenge of navigating cultural and economic divisions.

A battle ensued about jobs and livelihoods, ethnic identities and cultures, and deeply embedded family and social traditions. Both sides have deep ties to the sea and both recognize they have a shared interest in keeping the industry thriving amid environmental threats and a changing climate.

Some see room for common ground in calls for shared stewardship. One research project that combines Western scientific techniques with Mi’kmaw ecological principles aims to bolster understanding – both of the fishery and the peoples that depend on it.

“We work together, we collect any information, we share the information, and we at the end all understand what’s going on together,” says one commercial fisherman working on the project. “That’s the path forward. ... First, we have to learn how to talk to each other.”

The day began bright and clear in St. Mary’s Bay, a narrow finger of water running alongside the southwestern coast of Nova Scotia.

For Fallon Peter-Paul, Sept. 17 was to be a festive occasion affirming her Indigenous rights. Along with other members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, she’d gathered on the wharf in Saulnierville to celebrate the inauguration of the community’s first lobster fishery aimed at helping members earn a modest living. It was intentionally launched outside the official government-set season for lobstering – and exactly 21 years to the day after Canada’s Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of the Mi’kmaq to do so.

After years of failed negotiations to put these rights into practice, the Mi’kmaq knew they would be provoking a reaction from non-Indigenous lobstermen and women whose families had worked these waters since the 1600s. But they didn’t expect what ensued.

Why We Wrote This

Canada has sought to redress historic grievances among its Indigenous populations. Its handling of a dispute over fishing rights in Nova Scotia shows the challenge of navigating cultural and economic divisions.

The mood quickly became menacing the very first day. Ms. Peter-Paul, a photographer, documented community members standing on the armor stone breakwater that circled the wharf like a comma, looking out into the bay, where several dozen boats from non-Indigenous fishing communities were waiting. Once out on the water, Indigenous lobstermen and women reported acts of intimidation by the other fishers, who cut traps and fired flares at Mi’kmaw boats.

“It was a really powerful moment,” says Ms. Peter-Paul. “And it was also really sad ... that all of those people were there because they didn’t believe we should be doing what we were doing, practicing our treaty rights.”

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP
Michael Sack, right, chief of the Sipekne’katik First Nation, presents the first lobster license and trap tags at a fisheries launch.
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP
Non-Indigenous boats protest the launch of the fishery, which operates outside the regular lobster season.

In the days that followed, local fishers harassed and assaulted the Indigenous lobsterers. They briefly barricaded one in a storage facility, which days later was burned to the ground. They seized crates of lobsters harvested by the Indigenous community; hundreds of lobsters were subsequently found dumped on the ground. 

Top Canadian officials quickly condemned the violence. The attacks spawned headlines around the world in what became known as Canada’s “lobster wars.” 

Now, with the commercial season in Nova Scotia’s most lucrative lobster fishing area, LFA 34, just opening, the two sides have never been more divided. Sipekne’katik First Nation announced Nov. 13 it would file a series of lawsuits against non-Indigenous fishers for alleged damages.

Commercial fishers and many in the tightknit communities where lobstering is the backbone of the economy say it’s unfair that the Mi’kmaq are fishing outside the regular season, citing a decline in the population of the species as their prime concern. Indigenous fishers and their allies counter that this is yet another example of racism and an inability of Canadians and their government to enforce their legal rights.

It’s a battle about jobs and livelihoods, ethnic identities and cultures, and deeply embedded family and social traditions. Yet it’s also a clash about something else: the future of what was once one of the most fecund fisheries in the world. 

Both sides recognize they have a shared interest in keeping the industry thriving in a place that has been traumatized by declining fish stocks. This is especially true at a time when the pandemic has temporarily cut off customers for the area’s succulent crustaceans. Even more worrisome, climate change is threatening to undermine local stocks permanently. 

All these forces are swirling in the cobalt waters off Nova Scotia, where everyone also knows one other painful fact: Lobster is the only real option left to harvest viably from these waters. 

The pride of Nova Scotia

Both sides have deep ties to the sea. The Mi’kmaq have hunted and fished for thousands of years across Atlantic Canada. They maintained their right to do so after colonization, as enshrined in the Peace and Friendship Treaties of 1752 and 1760-61. But the treaties have never been systematically upheld. Then, in 1993, a man named Donald Marshall Jr. decided to go fishing. 

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP
First Nation lobster boats gear up in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia.

He tried to illegally catch eels as an assertion of his Indigenous rights. Authorities charged him with three counts of violating federal fishery laws. The Marshall case went all the way to Canada’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 1999 that the Mi’kmaw and Maliseet people had the right to a “moderate livelihood” fishery – one defined ambiguously as providing “necessities” but not for the “accumulation of wealth” – outside the federally regulated fishing season.

The English and French, for their part, settled in the Maritimes centuries ago for the stocks of cod, salmon, halibut, and lobster that thrived in the chilly Atlantic waters. But in the 1990s, groundfish stocks in the area – including, most infamously, northern cod – collapsed. Other fisheries, such as scallop grounds, shrank and their harvesting passed into corporate hands. That has left lobster as the only community-based inshore fishery in the region.

Today lobster is king in Nova Scotia, its top export commodity. The industry itself, romanticized from the outside, is one of the reasons this conflict has made headlines around the world. Trevor Corson, the author of “The Secret Life of Lobsters,” notes how lobsters capture the imagination and symbolize a “kind of rugged individualism.” 

“The lobster is a classic monster, almost alien, seemingly built for pure survival in the dark depths, and if it were any bigger it would terrify us,” he says. 

The violent clashes have hurt the pride of Nova Scotia, the heart of Canada’s billion-dollar lobster industry. Indeed, Susan Beaton, a commercial lobsterwoman, notes how much lobstering is bound up in the image of the province. But the latest skirmishes are “turning that on its head,” she says.

Growing up, her father harvested lobster, as well as other species. As a teenager, Ms. Beaton helped him catch groundfish with gillnets on Nova Scotia’s North Shore, and she would arrive back at the wharf covered in fish entrails. Ms. Beaton bought her own lobster license in the 1990s, shortly after the Marshall decision.

In her experience, Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishers have worked peacefully alongside one another in the commercial season, which runs May to June in her area, for the past two decades.

John Morris/Reuters
Lobsters sit in a crate aboard an Indigenous fishing boat on the Meteghan River in Nova Scotia.

But she says the recent launch of moderate livelihood fisheries outside the commercial season has non-Indigenous lobsterers, many of whom have watched the collapse of other species due to poor management, worrying about the impact on conservation – a claim many scientists question.

“I think some of the urgency we feel about it is that it’s been fairly well managed. We’ve sort of hit a sweet spot now with lobster,” she says. “And we’ve been pretty stable. So yeah, we’re pretty guarded about it. We know that ... it doesn’t take much to destabilize these things.”

She condemns the violence. And she worries it has hardened both sides’ positions – rolling back gains made in a relationship that has been productive. When a local pulp mill wanted to pump effluent directly into the Northumberland Strait, threatening local fishing grounds, commercial fishers and local Indigenous groups worked together last year to oppose the plan. Now, because of the tensions and violence, she worries such cooperation will vanish.

Weighing historic injustices

Canada is grappling with the encroachment of white settlers on Indigenous territory in ways the United States hasn’t. But even here, correcting injustices is something that is easier to do in principle than in practice. 

“The community level is actually the front lines of racism,” says Robert Huish, associate professor of international development studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “That’s where people’s lives are most deeply impacted and changed by the structures of race and racial inequality.”

It’s also where court decisions and political rhetoric are most intimately felt, whether in terms of both personal safety or material gain and loss. After the Marshall decision, the government spent millions of dollars buying licenses to transfer to Indigenous fishers, as well as on vessels and training, to bring First Nations into the commercial market.

That brought in significant jobs and income. According to a report issued last year by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a think tank in Ottawa, Ontario, total fishing revenues for the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet on their lands in all Maritime provinces grew from $3 million in 1999 to $152 million in 2016.

In early November, a coalition of Mi’kmaw nations announced the purchase of a 50% stake in Halifax-based Clearwater, North America’s largest shellfish producer. The deal involves offshore fishing, not the inshore lobstering that has been in dispute.  

Many in the local community feel that Indigenous fishers have already received sufficient support. They resent special privileges granted to Indigenous groups. They don’t understand the rights that First Nations possess outside the federal Fisheries and Oceans Canada management system – notably, the right to fish when they want, just as their ancestors did prior to colonization.

John Morris/Reuters
Indigenous lobsterman Jason Lamrock tosses an undersized lobster overboard.

Susanna Fuller, a marine conservationist at Oceans North in Halifax, says she can see the non-Indigenous perspective. “Particularly in lobstering, which has got this strange informal tenure system where usually a fisherman will fish in the same area year after year. ... There is a lot of ‘this is where Danny fishes, and that’s where Steven fishes,’” she says. “So imagine you’re a non-Indigenous fisher, and you’re sitting in your house and your boat is hauled up, and you’re not fishing right now because it’s outside the agreed season for non-Indigenous fishery. And you see somebody out there fishing where you usually fish.

“But that feeling of wanting to protect their territory should in some way give non-Indigenous people a sense of what the Mi’kmaq and First Nations are feeling and have felt for 300 years,” she says.

Mi’kmaw fisher Marilynn-Leigh Francis is one who felt aggrieved, and in 2016, decided she’d had enough. Ms. Francis, who is from Acadia First Nation, started taking her small boat out in St. Mary’s Bay in the summer to drop roughly a dozen traps for lobster. She harvested enough for herself and to give away to members of the community, with some for sale.

She did so without a license. Instead, she saw her fishing as part of her inherent right to resources, including lobster. She marked her buoys with “1752” to reflect the date of peace and friendship treaties signed between Europeans and the Mi’kmaq.

“I was tired of being a federal ward of the government. I was tired of being a prisoner within my own homeland,” she says. “I talked to my mom. I talked to our elders. And I was told to fish like our ancestors did. So that’s what I did.”

Federal authorities seized her traps, members of her own community criticized her, and non-Indigenous fishers at the wharf intimidated her. They vandalized her property and circulated her photo on social media. It all wore her down. 

Then, at a gathering in 2018, a young girl approached Ms. Francis. “She kind of tapped me, pulled my ribbon dress. And she said, ‘You that lobster fisherwoman?’” When Ms. Francis confirmed it, the girl said, “When I grow up, I want to be like you. I want to fish like you.”

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP/File
A commercial fishing boat leaves port in West Dover, Nova Scotia, on Nov. 26, 2019, the first day of the annual lobster season on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

“Everything switched,” Ms. Francis says. “And I realized if I quit, who would these children look up to? Who would these sisters look up to? I’ve inspired a handful of women to buy boats and to go fishing. And that, to me, means more than anything.”

A rising tide of support

The clash over crustaceans has turned into a larger protest for Indigenous rights in Canada. Dwight Newman, a law professor at the University of Saskatchewan who studies the issue, says the launching of the moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia fits in with a larger pattern across Canada.

The year started with the Wet’suwet’en demonstrations against the building of a natural gas pipeline through their traditional territory in British Columbia. In the face of heavy-handedness by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – who have been criticized in Nova Scotia for reacting passively as First Nations have been attacked during the lobster dispute – the protests spread through Canadian society, leading to shutdowns of streets and rail blockades.

“First Nations in Nova Scotia see this as a time when they can assert a fuller recognition of their rights than they might have received at some other time,” he says.

It coincides with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s stated commitment to reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Demonstrations against systematic racism also broke out in Canadian cities after the killing of African American George Floyd by a white American police officer.

All this reflects a dramatic shift in support for Indigenous causes. When Indigenous members first tested their legal rights after the Marshall decision 21 years ago and violence erupted, locals say they can’t recall receiving any backing from non-Indigenous groups. Now they have allies across the country.

In the wake of the fishing dispute in Saulnierville, the owners of Dear Friend, a bar three hours away in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, decided to take the most popular item off the menu – the lobster roll – in support of the Indigenous cause.

John Morris/Reuters
Canadian federal police officers investigate the remains of a lobster pound that was destroyed by a fire, in Middle West Pubnico, Nova Scotia. Local fishers reacted angrily to the launch by Indigenous lobsterers of a self-regulated fishery in September.

It was a way “to magnify the situation, but to also raise funds for front-liners, who were working at the Meteghan Wharf to promote peace on the Indigenous side,” says Matt Boyle, co-owner of the establishment.

Dear Friend has been joined by several other restaurants in Halifax, Toronto, and Montreal.

Professor Newman says the lobster wars may not inspire a larger movement the way the Wet’suwet’en protest did. That was clearly seen as a “David and Goliath” fight – an Indigenous nation against Big Oil. Here their opponents are fishing families who are vulnerable in their own ways. This includes the impact from the pandemic, which has cut lobster exports to China; climate change; and, some say, the pressure of corporate interests on Canada’s only remaining community-based inshore fishery. And the environmental message is murky.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that the government does have the right to restrict a moderate livelihood fishery in the name of conservation. Commercial fishers point out that the fishery was started at the time of year when lobsters are molting.

But many scientists doubt any of this will adversely affect lobster populations. They note that the Sipekne’katik First Nation issued just 11 licenses, which encompasses about 500 traps, a tiny fraction of the commercial industry. And they point out that the U.S. doesn’t restrict lobstering during molting.

Yet questions endure about future populations. With more Mi’kmaw communities launching their own moderate livelihood fisheries, some worry it could eventually lead to a decline in lobster stocks.

One lobsterman who works in LFA 33, which adjoins LFA 34, says he and his fellow fishers aren’t greedy as the media have depicted them. (He asked that his name not be used, out of concern that he and his family could be targeted online.) Instead, with two lobster licenses, a snow crab license, and a boat, he says he’s more than $1 million (Canadian; U.S.$764,000) in debt. While lobster stocks in his fishing area are healthy, he’s worried what out-of-season fishing could mean for the long-term sustainability of the industry.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP
A fisherman sets off fireworks as boats head from West Dover, Nova Scotia on Nov. 28, 2017, the first day of the season in Canada’s largest lobster fishery.

“Since being a young fisherman, young captain, the most important thing to me, to be honest, is not the money. The most important thing to me is ... I want to be able to hand this down to my children. And if I can’t do that, that’s where the uncertainty affects us the most.”

Shared stewardship?

But that’s why some see the room for common ground. Dr. Fuller points to a recent labor market study that shows a 40% shortage of workers over the next 10 years in Atlantic Canada’s fisheries – a gap that First Nations could help fill.

Both groups also face the same threat from climate change, which is warming waters and could eventually force lobster populations farther north and offshore. And they are uniquely positioned to share learnings and best practices as a path forward.

Once a week, commercial fisherman Darren Porter backs his boat down a ramp and into the muddy waters of the Halfway River, which flows into the Bay of Fundy.

On the boat, he joins master’s students from a nearby university and employees from the Mi’kmaw Conservation Group. “We’re tagging fish, doing surgeries [for tags], tracking fish, stuff like that,” says Mr. Porter.

The team is conducting work on punamu, or Atlantic tomcod, a fish that is culturally important to the Mi’kmaq. But the way this project is structured is as significant as the species they’re studying.

The project, called Apoqnmatulti’k, is a three-year study combining Western scientific techniques with Mi’kmaw ecological principles and local knowledge. The focus is on three species – tomcod, American eel, and American lobster – in the Bay of Fundy and, in the north of the province, the saltwater Bras D’Or Lake. The project blends Indigenous and Western ways to see the world from both perspectives.

Matthew Bailey/VWPICS/AP/File
Lobster traps line the harbor in Saulnierville,Nova Scotia. The collapse of groundfish stocks and corporate takeovers have left lobster as the only community-based inshore fishery in the region.

“We’re building a different way of doing research that is guided by community knowledge, values, and their priorities,” says Skyler Jeddore, who is from Eskasoni First Nation and is community liaison and field technician for the Apoqnmatulti’k project in the Bras D’Or Lake.

Many believe the research project could be a template for shared stewardship of lobster populations. 

“We work together, we collect any information, we share the information, and we at the end all understand what’s going on together,” says Mr. Porter. “That’s the path forward. ... First, we have to learn how to talk to each other.”

In a dispute where much of the tension has hinged on the conservation of a species that will affect the future of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, that template offers a potential way forward, Mr. Porter says. “We all have to look past our own needs and wants. We’ve got to start doing something for somebody else, instead of just doing stuff for ourselves.”

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