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Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq on verge of milestone fisheries agreement

‘We’re hoping for something, in the interim anyway, as soon as the spring,’ says Chief Terry Paul

Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq are poised to sign an agreement that finally defines how a “moderate living fishery” will operate in the province.

Membertou Chief Terry Paul, who heads the fisheries portfolio of Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, says a deal is close.

“We’re hoping for something, in the interim anyway, as soon as the spring,” Paul said during a break at an aquaculture conference in Halifax.

In an interview, Paul outlined an ambitious agenda that also includes support for finfish aquaculture and getting into the Gulf of St Lawrence redfish fishery when it reopens to large sale commercial harvesting.

Closer to moderate living fishery

Achievement of an agreement would be a milestone for Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq and a win for the Trudeau government’s efforts at Indigenous reconciliation, which has been battered recently by blockades and protests.

In the 1999 Marshall decision, named after the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw man who was the face of the case, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized Mi’kmaq and Maliseet had the right to earn a moderate livelihood from the fishery.

But, two decades later, it’s never been defined in Nova Scotia.

Paul said concerns from both sides have been addressed.

“I believe that this government and the minister that we have today understand where we’re coming from,” he said.

“And … overall what they want to see is that there’s accountability in the fishery and we’re proving that there’s going to be accountability in our livelihood fishery.”

Since 2017, former Fisheries and Oceans bureaucrat Jim Jones has been negotiating moderate living agreements with individual bands.

So far there are agreements with two bands in New Brunswick and one in Quebec.

Its not clear if an agreement will be with some or all 13 Nova Scotia bands.

Last month, all the bands signed a partnership with Clearwater Seafoods giving them a stake in the company’s Arctic surf clam fishery.

Mi’kmaq poised to enter large-scale commercial fishery

Paul said the Mi’kmaq have an agreement with an out-of-province company to pursue the redfish fishery when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans restarts large scale fishing of what is also called ocean perch.

Redfish is set to trigger a bonanza in the 2020s with the biomass in the Gulf of St Lawrence now estimated at three-million tonnes.

“We are very, very interested in getting that,” he said. “We’ve applied for that and we’ve developed our partnership in order to be able to fish the redfish.”

Support for salmon farms

Paul is an advocate for salmon farming in Nova Scotia.

Right now, the Norwegian company Cermaq is proposing salmon farms in St. Margarets Bay, Mahone Bay, Digby County, Richmond County and Guysborough County.

Opponents say open-net pen farms pollute the ocean with chemicals and waste.

“Well, I used to share those concerns, til I got educated myself on the industry,” Paul said.

He said he went to Norway to investigate and was impressed.

He’s not the only chief to support the industry.

Chief Rod Googoo of We’koqma’q signed a deal with fish-farming giant Cooke Seafood to market steelhead trout at its 60-cage farm in the Bras d’Or Lake.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Paul said. “We will deal with people that we feel are very knowledgeable about the industry and know what to do with that and help us move in that direction.”

What fishing revenues mean to First Nations

Commercial fishing revenue within individual bands has exploded since the Marshall decision.

The federal government has spent $545 million to promote Indigenous fishing, mostly to buy commercial licences for First Nations and training.

In an assessment published last fall on the 20th anniversary of the Marshall decision, the Macdonald Laurier Institute estimated on-reserve revenues in the Atlantic region increased from $3 million to $152 million in 2016.

While it has been largely peaceful on the water between native and non-native fishermen, tensions have erupted in recent years in southwest Nova Scotia over the Indigenous food, social and ceremonial fishery.

Many commercial fishermen and DFO say there have been cases where it has been used as a cloak for commercial fishing.