A tale of two wharves

FISHERIES MANAGEMENT Nova Scotians have made the best and worst attempts to come to grips with native commercial fishing rights


FREDERICTON (9 November 1999) -- In one scene, fishermen and their families confront a single native man who dares manoeuvre his fishing boat through the armada of licensed fishing boats tied up at the Yarmouth wharf.

The 150 boats from southwestern Nova Scotia had converged in protest against native lobster fishing in the wake of the Supreme Court's Marshall Decision. A fight breaks out and two people are arrested. This follows their criminal action of dragging the waters off Yarmouth for native traps, which they haul up and destroy. Then, in a show of intimidation and bravado, they move towards the nearby home of a native woman where a small group of natives are gathered.

One protest leader later boasts that the protest was "largely peaceful" and that he is "proud" of that. The RCMP says it is trying to moderate angry behaviour by not intervening unless physical harm or property damage is threatened. They do not explain why they allowed destruction of lobster traps or failed to arrest those responsible, though traps clearly constitute property and vigilantism is still illegal in Canada.

In another scene, only an hour's drive from Yarmouth, representatives of Mi'kmaq and licensed fishermen are discussing how the two groups can co-operate in managing the fishery in St. Mary's Bay, Digby County.

The meeting has not been easily come by. Emotions are high in the Digby area as well. But positive leadership and two years of open relations with Mi'kmaq chiefs over the native food fishery have prevailed to encourage dialogue rather than confrontation. The discussion is difficult, the landscape full of pitfalls and hazards. Long-term success is not guaranteed, but an initial agreement to form a working group on the St. Mary's Bay fishery is struck, a sign of mutual respect and goodwill.

These Nova Scotia scenes are a study in contrasts. The issues and the parties involved are the same, and yet the differences in strategy are striking. In Yarmouth, a confrontational approach driven by anger, fear, ignorance and ultimately racism, provoked by leaders including a processor and supporter of the Reform Party, led to violence and criminal action. Around St. Mary's Bay, tension and uncertainty were tempered by intelligence, foresight, fairness and practicality.

Digby County fishermen are not any more virtuous nor have any less to lose than their peers to the south. Yet, as the Marshall decision can only be understood in historical context, so we must analyze the different responses to that decision in the context of the organizational history of the inshore fishery.

For the last few years, inshore fishermen along the Nova Scotia shore of the Bay of Fundy have formed democratic and accountable organizations around the concept of community-based fisheries management to which most fishermen now belong. This was in response to the threat that DFO would privatize the entire fishery through individual quota allocations, effectively ending the owner-operated small-boat fishery. Initially, these groups fought for and then took responsibility for community fish quotas, an innovation agreed to by DFO and implemented on both sides of the bay.

From there, interest evolved towards managing their fishing in ways that respect the life cycle and habitat needs of the fish. This, they believe, is a more effective conservation strategy than DFO's failed quota system. Since the ecological context is bigger than just their fishing zones, they extended an invitation to other Fundy fishermen's associations to form the Bay of Fundy Fisheries Council (BFFC). While it wasn't necessarily an easy sell and hasn't always been smooth sailing, currently all professional inshore fishermen's associations in the Bay of Fundy are members of the BFFC .

The underlying principles of the BFFC acknowledge that fisheries must be sustainable in the context of the whole Fundy ecosystem, that fishermen in their communities must have the primary responsibility for stewardship and resource management, and that decision-making must be democratic, transparent and trustworthy. Through a process of kitchen-table meetings and workshops, they have been developing rules for community-based fisheries management. Once finalized, their challenge will be to convince DFO to let them fish by their own rules.

Herein lies the seed from which a co-operative approach with native fisheries has sprouted.

Fundy fishermen advocate self-governance of their inshore fisheries based on principles of community and ecosystem sustainability. First nations advocate self-governance and management of resource harvesting based on the principle that they must sustain the earth for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. They have a common philosophical foundation on which to build a practical solution to this current crisis.

Instead of screaming for DFO to impose restrictions on the native fishery, the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association, the Maritime Fishermen's Union Local 9, and the local first nations bands will form the St. Mary's Bay Working Group to arrive at local solutions to integrating native fisheries into the area. The working group will start by addressing joint research work, interim harvesting plans, enforcement, safety and security, and information and data collection on landings and catch rates in St. Mary's Bay.

According to a statement released after their Saturday meeting, everyone agreed that "the key to short term needs and long term goals is face to face co-operation, respecting the points of view of both nations, in meeting our shared responsibilities to manage the resources." Spokesman Arthur Bull said that the two groups are not "negotiating" an agreement. Instead, they hope to co-operate in a way that ensures sustainability of the resource while respecting the autonomy of both groups in managing the fishing activity of their members.

Back now to the Yarmouth wharf. The protestors' situation deserves some empathy. Like the Digby-area fishermen, they have witnessed the foundation of their small-boat fishery being consistently and progressively sold out by DFO to the most aggressive elements of the fishery: the big processors and the highly capitalized mobile fleets.

In their last remaining stronghold, the lobster fishery, they fear losing ground once again, although to a different party. This new party, unfortunately, is an easy target and it bears the brunt of years of pent-up frustration. Unlike their peers in the Digby area, many protestors gathered at Yarmouth are not members of any professional fisheries associations. Thus, there is no accountable or representative leadership and no established mechanism for problem-solving. There is no history of constructive, respectful engagement with native bands and so no basis on which dialogue might be built.

Without the experience that comes with working through organizations to meet common needs and goals, there is no collective maturity to draw on in time of crisis. The crowd, susceptible to inflammatory rhetoric and one-sided points of view, degenerates into a mob mentality where intimidation is the tactic of choice and responsibility and accountability are absent.

Ironically, the Yarmouth protestors are looking to the source of their problems, DFO, for a solution, despite the fact that DFO has undermined their interests in the past and has proven to be ineffective in fisheries management. That the department should be waited upon to solve this crisis is naive and even hypocritical.

The appointment of a mediator might be helpful, but a satisfactory long-term solution will only be found if these people stop hiding behind the excuse that DFO inaction made them do it, and start to mend fences and open avenues for positive dialogue directly with the native fishermen who have a rightful place on the fishing grounds. Such is the logical extension of their clamour for less top-down and more bottom-up control over the fishery.

Bringing the parties together under the umbrella of an ecosystem-based community management model such as the one in St. Mary's Bay puts the initiative for solving the crisis where it is most likely to succeed: in the hands of native and non-native fishermen themselves, working responsibly through their representative and accountable organizations. The most positive, long-lasting contribution to responsible fisheries management in the next millennium may well come from here.

*Janice Harvey is the marine conservation director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. She can be reached by E-mail at waweig@nbnet.nb.ca.

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