Some Mi’kmaw leaders are giving the federal government a March 8 deadline to respond to an elver fishery proposal they submitted two months ago, even as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says it wants to shut down the baby eel harvesting season in 2024. 

Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier has said that due to violence, threats, widespread unauthorized harvesting and potential harm to elver stocks the season should be cancelled because it was “not possible to have a safe and sustainable elver fishery.”

Key elements of the Mi’kmaw proposal include monitoring total allowable catches, enhancing traceability using GPS and responsibly managing the fishery. It would also double their total allowable catch.

Gerald Toney, fisheries co-lead for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, said communities still need to discuss future plans and whether harvesters will continue to fish even with a ban in place.  

“Leadership is just here to support all our community members, and what that looks like right now… I have no idea,” Toney said. 

“We’re trying to work through this, now we’re just … we’re scrambling,” Toney said. “It’s leaving us, all our communities wondering what … impacts that they have for sure.”

In a rare joint interview, the chiefs spoke with CBC News on Friday. Toney was joined by fisheries co-lead for the assembly, Chief Wilbert Marshall of the Potlotek First Nation, We’koqma’q First Nation Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley and co-chair Sidney Peters to discuss potential impacts of a closure and also to plan ahead. 

Earlier this month, Lebouthillier gave all licence holders until last Friday to respond to the notice to close the 2024 elver fishery. 

A man with black hair and dark clothes is shown from the shoulders up.
‘I don’t even know what that’s even really going to look like right now,’ Chief Gerald Toney says. (CBC)

The assembly’s proposal would see eight Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia share a 3,600-kilogram total allowable catch, or 36 per cent of the allotted 9,960-kilogram annual Maritime quota. That would mark a massive increase from the 14 per cent made available to six Wolastoqey communities in New Brunswick and four Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia in 2023.

Based on surveys, the assembly said they expect to see between 527 to 780 harvesters on 45 rivers and streams to ensure “safe inclusive spaces for Mi’kmaq participants.”

“It’s just going through all of our communities now that it’s potentially going to be shut down and people are just in disbelief,” Toney added. “So many people count on those dollars that offset numerous things.” 

Millbrook First Nation, which was not part of the assembly’s proposal, also responded Monday, expressing their disappointment with the “continued lack of consultation.”

DFO said closing the season is needed to protect the eel population from uncontrolled harvesting. It shut down the season in 2023 and 2020, citing problems with poaching.  

In another release sent to CBC News, the chief and council of We’koqma’q L’nue’kati in Cape Breton said if the commercial fishery is banned, illegal harvesting could lead to the demise of elvers and the American eel population.

“Well, it’s pretty hard to prepare for something that you didn’t see coming until a couple weeks before,” said Bernard-Daisley. “The potential impacts are tremendous.”

According to the release, We’koqma’q L’nue’kati holds a communal commercial elver licence to harvest 1,200 kilograms — of  which 400 kilograms are located on the Gold River, one of the rivers where DFO said illegal harvesting prompted last year’s shutdown.

In the meeting, Bernard-Daisley expressed frustration at the potential shutdown because that revenue helps fund their economy, housing, food banks, and other initiatives that impact their youth and elders. Programs like teaching the Mi’kmaw language and culture rely on this funding.

We’koqma’q made a net revenue of approximately $4 million US annually from elver fishing, the First Nation said in a news release.

A woman looks concerned outside. She is wearing glasses and her hair is up in a bun.
Diane Lebouthillier, the federal minister of Fisheries and Oceans, said previously ‘it is my view that it is not possible to have a safe and sustainable elver fishery in 2024, and therefore the fishery should not be opened.’ (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

The assembly worries that without an open and authorized fishery, they would lose the positive momentum gained over the past three years for Mi’kmaw harvesters. 

Peters also suggested the government and the general public need more education about Indigenous rights, saying it’s upsetting that that communication has broken down.

“And this is one of the things we’ve been trying to do, but it’s also frustrating that the government of the day doesn’t really want to meet with us,” Peters said. 

“When you’re dealing with dollars and cents, it makes a big difference and as Chief Annie had to say in regards to the impacts to her community, ‘holy commolly, it’s very frustrating when all of a sudden the federal government comes up and does this without any consultation with us.'”

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