Some Wolastoqey fishers say closure of the fishery for baby eels, or elvers, this year will infringe on their treaty rights and impact their right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing.

Last week, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) issued letters to commercial licence holders that it will not renew licences ahead of the elver season that typically starts in late March.

DFO shut down the elver fishery in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia last April because of conservation and safety concerns, after reports of violence and overfishing by unauthorized harvesters.

Tyler Sabattis, a lobster and scallop fisherman, said he got into elver fishing last year to earn extra income for his family and community in Bilijk (Kingsclear First Nation), near Fredericton.

Sabattis said he invested over $1,600 in fishing gear and fished for two days last year before the fishery was shut down. 

An Indigenous man in fishing gear holds up a lobster
Tyler Sabattis is a Wolastoqey fisher who says he has a treaty right to harvest elvers in his territory. (Tyler Sabattis/Facebook)

He said he was shocked to hear the fishery may be closed for another season.

“I’d like to see an open fishery for all of us where all of us can go out there, non-Natives, whites, anybody in between, whoever wants to get in the fishery, get out there and be happy and you know make their money that they need and support their families,” said Sabattis, 31. 

Elvers, or glass eels, are fished from rivers and estuaries throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and then sold live to Asian markets. Market prices vary but reached as high as $5,000 a kilogram in 2022.

In a public statement Feb. 13, DFO said the elver fishery “has experienced a pattern of increasing and serious challenges, including conservation and safety concerns.” DFO is to consult with licence holders, First Nations, and Indigenous organizations on the future of the 2024 elver fishery.

“Once the 10-day comment period is over, and input has been considered, the minister will make a decision on the 2024 fishery,” the statement said.

Sabattis said he wants them to know elver harvesters stand to make more with commercial quotas and fishers like him have a treaty right to fish.

In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed that Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik and Peskotomuhkati have a right to earn a moderate livelihood from fishing under the Peace and Friendship treaties.

In 2022, DFO took 14 per cent of the 9,960 kilogram commercial quota and divided it up among Mi’kmaw and Wolastoqey communities. Last season, the Wolastoqey Nation was allotted 750 kilograms for its six communities.

A man wears traditional Wolastoqey chief's headdress.
Neqotkuk Chief Ross Perley says the possible closure of the elver fishery is disappointing. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) said he got a letter last week saying that the commercial quota for the Wolastoqey communities won’t be renewed this year.  

Perley said they suggested DFO increase the total allowable catch for First Nations fishers. He said increasing Indigenous access could stop fishers from selling their catch on the black market because they would make more money fishing under a commercial quota, which would allow for stronger monitoring of harvested elvers.  

But he said so far that proposition has been rejected. 

“We’re still willing to work out something that is equitable for rights holders but if there’s nothing in place and this closure continues, I predict rights holders are going to practise their rights here, regardless,” said Perley.

In response to a request for comment, DFO pointed to its statement saying it would issue a public announcement after the 10-day comment period.

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