One year ago this month, lobster fishermen in southern Nova Scotia chased two federal fisheries inspection vessels into the port of West Pubnico and then rammed, burned and sank them. Later, 13 fishermen received suspended sentences under the piracy section of the Criminal Code. And now, in the peak period for Nova Scotia’s lobster fishery, relations are still strained between many lobster fishermen and the federal department of fisheries and oceans. The DFO’s job is to enforce the fishing limit and prevent overfishing on what is widely regarded as the world’s richest lobster grounds. The 1983 gross: a record $36.4 million.
Tempers run short in the area, largely because of the money involved. “I thought someone was going to get killed last year,” said Leighton Nickerson, 48, a fisherman from Woods Harbour. “If changes are not made soon,
there could be more violence this year.” Added Nickerson: “People believe you are a pirate if you come from Woods Harbour.” Paul Sutherland, the DFO’s fisheries’ operations director in Hali-
fax, agreed that tension is still high in the area. “Our officers have received threats that there will be violence if they haul traps,” he said.
During inspections fisheries officers “haul” traps by raising them off the seabed to ensure that they bear the plastic DFO-issued tags. That enforcement policy is at the heart of the animosity in Lobster District 4A, which covers the southern tip of the province between Digby and Barrington. Regulations limit each of the 963 licensed fishermen in the district to a maximum of 375 lobster traps in each of the two seasons—the current season ends May 31— and some fishermen complain that they cannot make a living unless they exceed that limit. The fishermen’s average income in 1983 after expenses was $25,000 to $35,000.
But DFO biologists calculate that fishing in District 4A has become so intense that fewer than one lobster in 100 survives long enough to reproduce. In addition, experts say that unless they enforce the 375-trap limit, overfishing may destroy the lobster fishery. For his part, lobster fisherman Kirby Nickerson declared, “The department is just so unreasonable—it will not listen to our point of view.” Nickerson, 26, is Leighton’s nephew, and is also from Woods Harbour, which is the most vocal centre of opposition to government policies. Since its formation in February, 1983, the Bear Point, Shag Harbour, Woods Harbour Fishermen’s Association (BSWFA), with 102 members, has sought support from political and civic leaders for its claims that fishermen’s livelihoods are in jeopardy from what they call the DFO’s campaign of harassment. The fishermen argue that government policy encouraged them to break the trap limit between 1968, when the government set the 375-trap limit, and 1982, when enforcement began in earnest. During those 14 years the DFO was able to mount only a token enforcement effort, and, as a result, fishermen in southwestern Nova Scotia routinely set several hundred traps more than the limit with impunity.
What is more, many fishermen received government grants to build larger, costlier boats and they used them to develop a new, “near shore” fishing ground that extended about 50 miles out to sea, well beyond the traditional “in shore” grounds. To support the higher costs of that expanded fishery, they say that the trap limit should be increased to at least 480.
The flash point for last year’s violence was the DFO’s tag-checking practice. The fishermen claimed that it caused disruptions and tangled equipment, reducing their ability to catch lobster. Said Sterling Belliveau Jr., former vice-president of the BSWFA: “We asked the Human Rights Commission to find this unlawful search and seizure. It is an unwritten law that you do not haul another man’s traps.” The HRC case is pending.
DFO officials point out that they haul traps for inspection only if they have “reasonable and probable grounds” for suspecting that the traps are illegal— often after other fishermen tip the inspectors off. Said Sutherland: “We have been able to haul only a few traps so far this year because of bad weather, but every one has been illegal.”
Along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore the lobster fishery has almost died out over the past 80 years, he says, partly because conservation policies were weak. He added that he intends to ensure that that disaster is not repeated in the south. Said Douglas Robinson, a senior adviser with the DFO: “Many fishermen in District 4A are satisfied with the trap limit and enforcement as they are now.” Robinson said that some fishermen simply want the DFO to legitimize their illegal fishing by raising the trap limit, and he added, “We have even had three fishermen offer their boats to help us haul traps and enforce the limit.”
Fishermen and DFO officials talk regularly at meetings of Lobster District Working Groups, established last year to defuse tensions, but so far the District 4A group has not managed to lessen discontent, especially in the Woods Harbour area. And that bitterness may yet produce problems that will dwarf the current difficulties.
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