It’s like a reoccurring bad dream.
Every summer, after the season closes for the commercial lobster fishery in southwestern Nova Scotia, another one starts in St. Mary’s Bay, Digby County.
Some of the lobster fishing activity that happens in St. Mary’s Bay during the summer months is legitimate; First Nations people exercising their right to fish for Food, Social and Ceremonial (FSC) purposes as provided for in the Marshall Decision.
But not all.
Since early summer, commercial fishing stakeholders and local Members of Parliament have been calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and the Nova Scotia government to do more to stop the illegal catch and sale of lobster.
“We are writing to you a second time to express once again our deep concern about the current situation in St. Mary’s Bay,” wrote Nova Scotia MPs Chris d’Entremont and Rick Perkins in a letter to federal fisheries Minster Diane Lebouthillier on Sept. 8.
“We have repeatedly called upon the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to fulfill its responsibilities including seizing illegal and unauthorized gear and preventing poaching… DFO officers must start patrolling the waters at night when sources say most of the poaching is happening… The poached lobsters are leaving the community somehow and we must immediately shut down those channels.”
The two MPs say legal harvesters “are regularly communicating with our offices to let us know that there are upwards of 50 boats pulling hundreds of thousands of pounds of lobster per day. These numbers heavily suggest poachers are engaged in full-scale commercial catches outside of FSC purposes.”
The two MPs have asked for FSC statistics, including the number of FSC licences that are operating in the region, the current catch and the monitoring and reporting requirements, to be released publicly.
DFO maintains it is doing its job, making a number of arrests, seizing gear and releasing thousands of lobsters back into the ocean this past summer.
On Sept. 23, fishery officers arrested and later released four individuals in Saulnierville for multiple infractions under the Fisheries Act, including unauthorized lobster fishing.
“Fishery officers seized one fishing vessel and over 1,600 lobsters. The lobster were released live back into the ocean. As an investigation into this matter is now underway, no further information will be provided at this time,” said DFO.
On Sept. 14, DFO said it will “remain actively engaged in Southwest Nova Scotia, meeting with Indigenous harvesters, groups and organizations, as well as commercial fishing associations. Open, honest and clear dialogue remains the best way to raise concerns and to find solutions for everyone involved in the lobster fishery.”
Since July 17, fishery officers have seized 655 traps in lobster fishing areas (LFAs) 33 and 34. On September 7 and 10, fishery officers made arrests for infractions of the Fisheries Act, in addition to the arrests and seizure of lobster in Moncton on August 30.
“As a result of these efforts, thousands of lobsters have been released live, back into the ocean. Investigations into these infractions are underway, and fishery officers will continue to seize unauthorized gear and catch.”
The RCMP has had additional resources in the St. Mary’s Bay area as a precautionary measure during the summer months. On Sept. 10, Meteghan RCMP arrested two men in relation to two separate assaults that occurred at an assembly in Saulnierville. The 34-year-old and 39-year-old men were later released and apologized to the victims. Criminal charges are not anticipated.
Where the province has the authority over buyers’ licenses, fishing organizations have been calling on the provincial government to increase the maximum fine for both individuals and businesses caught in illegal activity from $100,000 to a maximum of $1 million and ensure that neither an individual nor a business owned by that individual have access to a license again.
The provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture is in the process of a regulatory review that could include updates to the Nova Scotia Fisheries and Coastal Resources Act, said JoAnn Alberstat, communications advisor for the department.
“Provincial fines for offences under the Act are part of this review. The current maximum under the Act is $100,000,” she said.
“Those suspected of contravening the Act, including those suspected of carrying out illegal buying, may be charged by either the federal or provincial government. If someone is convicted at the federal level, they cannot also be convicted by the province for the same offence,” said Alberstat. “The federal government can fine up to $1,000,000 for an individual’s first offence. Raising fine amounts in the provincial Act is a deterrent to illegal activity and ensures that the maximum fine if someone is charged provincially is significant.”
Alberstat said the department has “heard from industry that there is an increase in the number of unreported cash sales between fish harvesters and buyers. All commercially caught fish must be reported to DFO. They need that information to manage fish stocks. Not reporting income from these sales breaks Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) laws. There are laws in Canada that protect against the activity and breaking the law has consequences, including criminal charges.
Alberstat said there are instances of Nova Scotia fish buyers being convicted of federal fisheries-related offences.
“There are administrative consequences that our department can impose on a convicted licence holder. The department can, and does, take licensing measures for various reasons. For example, a Nova Scotia fish buyer’s licence was terminated in 2020 as a result of a federal conviction related to the licence holder making false statements to a fishery officer by failing to disclose commercial lobster sales,” said Alberstat.
As of Sept. 1, there are 316 licenced fish buyers in Nova Scotia. There are three licence categories: buyer processors who are required to also have a licenced fish processing facility; independent buyers who are not required to also have a licensed fish processing facility and retail buyers selling seafood to the end consumer for eating.