Members of the Sipekne'katik First Nation head from the wharf in Saulnierville, Nova Scotia, after launching its own self-regulated fishery on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Credit: Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press via AP

Vandalism, physical intimidation and suspicious fires have broken out in Canada as tensions rise over Indigenous fishing rights, according to Canadian news reports.

A “suspicious” fire destroyed a storage building at a lobster pound near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told CTV. The lobster storage facility is used by members of the Mi’kmaq tribe, also known as Mi’kmaw or Micmacs. It came weeks after angry mobs of non-tribal fishermen swarmed and vandalized lobster pounds used by Mi’kmaq fishermen, including the one set on fire Saturday.

The fire, which caused life-threatening injuries to a man who police say is a “person of interest,” is the latest in a series of escalating confrontations between Mi’kmaq and non-tribal lobstermen over the tribe’s position that it is not subject to seasonal fishing prohibitions. In the past few weeks, a van has been set on fire, another vehicle has been vandalized, a Mi’kmaq fisherman has been barricaded inside a storage building, and lobster have been stolen and destroyed, Canadian media has reported.

Non-Indigenous lobstermen say fishing out of season will harm the local lobster population. Mi’kmaq leaders say they have a legal right to fish for a “moderate livelihood” outside federal time limits — a position reinforced by a Canadian Supreme Court ruling in 1999 — and that provincial and national leaders need to do more to protect those rights.

Tensions in the province have been high since late September, when Mi’kmaq fishermen started setting traps in St. Mary’s Bay near Digby. Non-tribal members in the area are prohibited from fishing between the end of May and late November.

The same storage facility in Middle West Pubnico, about a half hour drive from Yarmouth, was one of two pounds in the Canadian province used by Mi’kmaq lobstermen that were vandalized earlier in the week by angry mobs. According to Canadian Broadcasting Corp., on Tuesday a van was set ablaze and lobsters were stolen from a pound in New Edinburgh while in Middle West Pubnico, a Mi’kmaq fisherman was barricaded inside a storage building while the mob vandalized his vehicle and killed hundreds of lobster.

Tribal leaders have criticized Canadian police for not doing more to quell the mobs and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not acting to resolve the issue. On Friday, Trudeau called for calm and defended the federal response, according to CBC.

The impact of the Mi’kmaq fishing effort on the local lobster population is negligible, said Bob Steneck, a lobster scientist and professor of oceanography at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences. Out of nearly 1,000 fishermen licensed to harvest lobster in the fishing zone around Middle West Pubnico, only 11 are held by Mi’kmaq fishermen, BBC reported.

“Really it would be trivial, in my view, by almost any standard,” Steneck told the BBC.

The dispute echoes similar disagreements in Maine between Native American officials and state regulators over licensing in Maine’s lucrative baby eel fishery, though there have been no confrontations or violence here that compare to those in Nova Scotia.

In 2012, as the Maine Department of Marine Resources was tightening restrictions on the baby eel fishery, which had seen prices soar in the matter of a few months, the Passamaquoddy Tribe issued more than 230 licenses to its members to fish for baby eels, also known as elvers. At the time, eels were being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act over concerns that their population was declining and not enough protections were in place to protect them from overharvesting.

Despite pressure from the state, Passamaquoddy leaders insisted that they have legal treaty rights to sustenance fishing, outside of whatever license limits the state might set in place. State and tribal leaders later reached an agreement, approved by federal officials, that limited the tribe to an overall annual catch quota of roughly 1,300 pounds but did not restrict the number of licenses the tribe can issue to its members.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....