Commercial lobster sector concerned about out-of-season fishing in St. Marys Bay

Officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada in southwest Nova Scotia say they don't know how much lobster is being landed outside of the commercial fishing season in St. Marys Bay.

That admission came during a meeting on Wednesday in Yarmouth as part of the advisory committee for Lobster Fishing Area 34, the lucrative fishing grounds from Digby to Baccaro Point.

The meeting concentrated on conservation and protection, with fishermen and industry reps raising concerns about the amount of lobster Sipekne'katik First Nation fishers take from the bay during their food, social and ceremonial fishery (FSC), which runs outside the commercial season.

Officials say that knowing how much lobster is landed as part of the small-scale fishery is difficult because there is only limited self-reporting about catches. Although the fishery is permitted, Sipekne'katik officials have previously rejected DFO's allowable limit of 45,000 pounds.

Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance president Colin Sproul.
Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance president Colin Sproul. (CBC)

Colin Sproul, president of the Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance, said the meeting laid bare what people in the region have suspected all along.

"Not only do [DFO officials] have no idea how many lobsters are being harvested by FSC fisheries within St. Marys Bay, but they also don't have any mechanism to even be recording it and assessing it," he said in an interview.

Representatives for the First Nation told DFO last year that the FSC limit was reached without adequate consultation, and infringes on their rights, including the treaty right to earn a moderate livelihood from the fishery.

FSC lobster is not allowed to be sold.

Officials from Sipekne'katik First Nation did not respond to requests for comment, but a statement released Thursday said treaty rights are not being respected or honoured by the Crown.

Concerns about harassment, discrimination

"Constantly, our rights holders continue to face racism, discrimination, interference and harassment by DFO and other agencies when our members are rightfully and legally exercising their rights," said the statement, which followed a meeting on Tuesday to discuss treaty and moderate livelihood fisheries.

A working committee is being set up to address current fisheries management plans and issues the First Nation is facing, according to the statement.

Members of the Sipekne'katik band council say the relationship with DFO is "unrepairable, however, if conservation helps stop the harassment of our band members then we will have a discussion with DFO to hear what the Crown's issues are and to assert our rights to govern and manage our Sipekne'katik fisheries plans."

Sproul pointed to comments port representatives made this week about the recently concluded commercial season as evidence that the situation in St. Marys Bay is affecting stocks.

Reps uniformly said a high wharf price at the start of the season in November was the only thing that prevented devastation for people fishing offshore, where bad weather and colder water temperatures made lobsters shy until late in the season.

Calls for more enforcement

Inshore, however, it was a different story, with the reps saying catches were generally good for those fishing closer to the coast — everywhere except St. Marys Bay.

"I think the reason for that is clear," said Sproul.

"It's the presence of Canada's largest-ever unreported illegal fishery taking place in St. Marys Bay during the summer."

Despite a call during the meeting for more enforcement, DFO officials said there have been actions.

They said there were 77 patrols during last summer's FSC fishery and that 2,079 traps were hauled and 1,220 traps seized. Officers released 10,669 lobsters. There were also six plant inspections, 15 arrests, three large vessels seized and there are seven active investigations.

Officials said there is a plan for enforcement this summer in St. Marys Bay, although they declined to provide details.

Sproul said members of the commercial industry are "totally exasperated and left dumbfounded" that more is not being done to prevent the resource from being fished at an "industrial level" outside of the commercial season.

He said it will take direct intervention from the federal fisheries minister to change the situation.