Nova Scotia’s Silent Outcry: What Happened at the Lobster Fisheries
This article was originally written with the intent of presenting a series of facts in an objective, unbiased way. However, over the course of my research, and with knowledge of the way members of the First Nations are treated across the continent, I cannot allow myself to stand by as an observer. As anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes once stated, it is the duty of an anthropologist to use their voice and position to bring justice to the oppressed (1995). While I am not an anthropologist, I do have the privilege of being informed on issues of social inequality, and I want to use this privilege to its full extent.
In the early hours of October 17th 2020, a fire was reported in a Nova Scotia warehouse used by Indigenous lobster catchers to deposit their catch. This occurred after weeks of accumulating tension between Mi’kmaq lobster catchers of the Sipekne'katik First Nation and local non-Indigenous catchers.
Tensions had been ongoing since the Mi’kmaq fishers established their own fishery in September of 2020 with government licenses issued for 250 traps, which non-indigenous catchers claimed were illegal (Cooke, 2020). In reality, these traps were perfectly legal: the Peace and Friendship treaty of 1752 states that it is the constitutional right of Indigenous people to establish fisheries (Levinson-King, 2020). These lobster traps were set by the Mi’kmaq to make a modest living (Cooke, 2020). As in many other instances throughout history, the sustenance of Indigenous people was being undermined.
The main cause of the conflict was that non-Indigenous fishermen saw the Mi’kmaq fishing practices as a threat, because the latter continued to set lobster traps even outside of the lobster season approved by the government (Tutton, 2020). They claimed that this practice did not give lobsters enough time to reproduce, leading to a depletion of the population.
The tensions started escalating in September, which led to non-Indigenous fishermen expressing their rage through violence.
It is important to understand the ongoing seafood crisis. Global fisheries are a non-excludable and rivalrous source, which respectively mean that it is impossible for one fisher to restrict access of a population to another fisher, and that the more one fisher gets, the more another loses. This leads to the creation of a social trap, where fishers rush to extract as much of a resource as they can before another can take it, always wanting to benefit more than their competitor. Fishers often catch at a non-replenishable rate in their hunger-driven extractions, leading to a depletion of fish stock.
There is also a problem with fishing out of season. The government restrictions on fishing are imposed in order to allow fish populations to replenish at a natural, sustainable rate. As such, fishing out of season means slowing down the replenishment rates. If a small amount of a population is extracted out of season, as is allegedly done by the Mi’kmaq with lobsters, the consequences might not be noticeable in the short term. However, problems could arise when fishers extract a large quantity of fish from a population that has not fully replenished during the allowed period.
The anger of non-Indigenous fishermen can be seen as a manifestation of the social trap: they cannot stand the idea of another gaining a resource if they themselves cannot. This anger might also come from the thought of the lobster population being low during their government allowed fishing periods.
On the other hand, lobster catching is an important source of Mi’kmaq livelihood. Indigenous people are, and have always been, at a financial disadvantage in their own country. Compared to non-Indigenous populations, there are twice as many members of First Nations who have not completed a High-School education. Indigenous communities also have a higher unemployment rate and tend to earn 25 percent less (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., 2019). Fishing can be one of the few, if not only, means of sustenance for the Mi’kmaq community, which explains why it is necessary for them to to catch lobster year-round as opposed to the few months allowed by the government.
This is not the first time Indigenous livelihoods are undermined by non-indigenous people. In 2014, American talk show host Ellen publicly denounced seal hunting practices in Canada, collecting a large amount of money for her anti-seal-hunting campaign with the boost in popularity of her internet-breaking Oscars selfie, ignoring that it is one of the only means of survival for Northern Indigenous communities. Being a celebrity, her involvement in this issue gained a lot of traction, earning the support of her many followers. While Indigenous people protested her campaign on social media, Ellen’s message had already engraved itself in the minds of her followers. This campaign, backed up by a Western anti-cruelty ethos, was not conducted from a culturally relative perspective; in other words, it did not acknowledge the cultural context and significance of these practices. Indigenous people living in the North do not hunt seal for sport, just like Indigenous people in Nova Scotia do not fish lobster out of season to gain the upper hand on large-scale commercial fisheries.
The dispute began to be settled in October of 2020, when Prime Minister Trudeau called in a neutral moderator to ensure the matters were arranged in a just manner. However, damage was already done to the Indigenous community: lobster buyers, including restaurants and wholesale sellers, had refused to buy from the Mi’kmaq lobster catchers, essentially depriving them of their livelihoods in a spiteful manner (Butler, 2020). More recently, Mi’kmaq fishers opened a case for the Nova Scotia government to allow them to sell their catch without a license.
It is time non-Indigenous North-Americans become aware of the injustices that members of the First Nations face on a daily basis because of our lack of cultural relativism. We need to learn to live together as an interrelated society, and sculpt our policies to be inclusive of a people who, for centuries, have been excluded.
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Maria Gheorghiu, journalist at Décryptage Citoyen International
March 23rd, 2021
Butler, K. (2020, December 26). Year in review: Nova Scotia lobster fishery fight. 660 City News. 660citynews.com/2020/12/26/year-in-review-nova-scotia-lobster-fishery-fight/
Cooke, A. (2020, September 17). Mi'kmaw fishermen launch self-regulated fishery in Saulnierville. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/mikmaw-fishermen-self-regulated-fishery-lower-saulnierville-1.5727920
Cooke, A. (2020, October 17). Fire destroys lobster facility in southwest Nova Scotia amid escalating fishery tensions. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/lobster-facility-middle-west-pubnico-fire-1.5765665
Indigenous Corporate Training Inc. (2019, April 26). 8 Key Issues For Indigenous Peoples In Canada. Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples. https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/8-key-issues-for-indigenous-peoples-in-canada
Levinson-King, R. (2020, October 16). Inside Canada's decades-long lobster feud. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-54472604
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36 (3): 409-440. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2744051
Tutton, M. (2020, October 15). First Nations chief calls on Trudeau to help settle Nova Scotia lobster dispute. https://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/first-nations-chief-calls-on-trudeau-to-help-settle-nova-scotia-lobster-dispute-1.5146249