The Mi'kma'ki Aboriginal Fisheries Service: New Directions In Fisheries Management

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The fisheries office at Eskasoni, on the East Bay of the Bras D'or Lakes, Cape Breton Island, is unlike any other in the Maritimes.

The Mi'Kma'Ki Aboriginal Fisheries Service (MAFS) office was established as an outcome of Phase 1 of the Task Force on Atlantic Aboriginal Fisheries (Task Force, 1991), which was spearheaded by the Eskasoni Development Corporation. MAFS is a Native initiative, created to meet the needs of Native fishers and communities.

The office pursues a broad mandate, often working on behalf of all thirteen Native bands across Nova Scotia. Much, though not all of MAFS' work is centred around Eskasoni, which is the largest Reserve in the Atlantic region with a band membership of approximately 2338 (Task Force, 1991).

The development of a Native fisheries management capability is particularly relevant in light of recent court rulings. Most significant to date is the 1990 Supreme Court of Canada Sparrow decision, which enshrines constitutional protection for the rights of Natives to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes, subject only to conserv ation requirements (Crosbie, 1992). Charlie Dennis, who is MAFS' executive director, is optimistic that a Micmac role in the commercial fisheries may also not be far off.

Although the Native fishery is very small and economically insignificant, the Ta sk Force on Atlantic Aboriginal Fisheries found that many aboriginal people feel a strong affinity to the fishery. Dennis, explains that MAFS was created to address what the Task Force calls an "...unequivocal desire [of] the Aboriginal communities to establish their own self-regulatory [fisheri es] process". As Dennis sees it, MAFS is like a Native Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

A Profile of MAFS:

The MAFS office is run by five full-time and several seasonal staff and is supported by five seasonal Native Guardians, similar to conservation officers. The office has a strong communication and policy coordination role, provides technical assistance, and runs several field programs:

Communication -- MAFS provides an important information distribution and communication role wit hin Native communities as well as with others, such as DFO and non-Native fishers. For example, staff offer educational programs in Native and non-Native schools, and conduct workshops for Natives and DFO staff on fisheries issues and treaty interpretatio ns. They attend meetings with recreational anglers, commercial fishers, DFO, band chiefs, and others. In certain cases, MAFS is also able to negotiate with DFO on behalf of the thirteen Nova Scotia bands.

These communication initiatives help develop a broader understanding of aboriginal fisheries issues and rights, both among Native and non-Native communities and institutions. Important outcomes include reduced hostilities between the various stakeholders, and an improved capacity of Native communitie s to manage their own fisheries.

Technical assistance -- MAFS provides technical assistance to aboriginals who wish to become involved with the commercial fishery, including aquaculture. Staff help clients access financial assistance, licenses, and te chnical information. Government offices such as DFO offer similar services but, according to Dennis, "... most Natives are leery of going to a DFO office" which, historically, has "busted" rather than helped them.

Field programs -- MAFS also coordinat es field programs ranging from Cape Breton stream habitat improvement and restocking efforts, to Bras d'Or Lakes lobster research, and educational programs.

A notable example is the DFO-funded Native Guardian Program, which employs about 15 Cape Breto n Natives to patrol the waters in and near their home reserves. Five work directly for MAFS, while the others maintain an affiliation with the office. The guardians are similar to conservation officers but without powers of arrest.

Ideally, MAFS would like to use the program for habitat restoration and restocking but funding levels have been restrictive. Dennis thinks this reflects, in part, DFO's focus on enforcement rather than on ecological restoration or economic development. Cecil Cameron, who is a consultant to MAFS, suggests the program is "essentially a monitoring program for DFO", although, as Dennis puts it, "we try to use Native officers as much as possible for education and data collection for us."


The three year old MAFS faces many challenges in working towards this vision of co-management. Most critical in the short term is funding, which has been cut as of November, 1993. The office depends almost totally on DFO for funding, with some contribu tion from the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries. This dependence leaves MAFS vulnerable, and Dennis hopes for other, more diversified funding in the future.

The funding problem is, however, only one issue among many that impedes progress towards a v ital Native fishery and management capability. Dennis and Cameron point to resistance within DFO, for example, and among anglers, commercial fishers, and the general public.

This point is well illustrated by the Wagmatcook Band's recent efforts to fish salmon in the North River, Cape Breton. DFO had licensed and otherwise agreed to this live trap food fishery, yet local residents successfully forced its closure by blocking an access road. DFO did not try to intervene on behalf of the band, nor had it given public notice of the license.

Linda Calvert, who is a Cape Breton angling activist, argues that good communication on these issues is vital, and that DFO has been repeatedly 'wrapped on the knuckles' for cases such as this. This communication ro le has been left to angling groups and to the native communities, says Calvert, though "this is DFO's work."

Dennis and Cameron also point to discrepancies between the intent of the federal government's 1992 Aboriginal Fisheries Strategy and DFO acti ons. Most of DFO's efforts, they believe, have been directed at enforcement, with only minimal attention to habitat enhancement, allocation of commercial fishing licenses to native bands, and involvement of aboriginals in fisheries science and management.

For example, DFO still does its stock assessment work without any involvement of Natives, which Calvert sees as 'very bad.' She supports training and education of Natives as well as consistent funding and support of MAFS as vital for effective implem entation of native fishing rights.

Whether the process of implementing Native rights to the fisheries leads to confrontation with other sectors of the fisheries, depends on many factors, including the patience of Native communities. Dennis suggests th at perhaps "we're too passive right now," and he admits being "tired of playing the good guy." An alternative, thinks Cameron, might be to try and close down the region's recreational salmon fishery by insisting on a comprehensive Native food, social and ceremonial fishery, as guaranteed by the Sparrow decision. Such a fishery could by itself probably utilize the region's entire total allowable catch, which is currently equivalent to only one salmon per Native person. "Maybe we should just go into rivers and create confrontations," adds Dennis.

Although the Micmac, including MAFS, have avoided confrontation, frustration is widespread. Certainly there are many issues to be negotiated and fears to be allayed -- which is why the development of a Native fisheries management capability through organizations such as MAFS appears so promising, even necessary. Without MAFS, relations between Native and non-Native communities would likely deteriorate.


The work of MAFS in communica tion, technical assistance and field programs is seen as only the beginning of a process to develop a Micmac fisheries and resource management capability.

At present, the Micmac hold only a marginal place in Atlantic fisheries, but this may soon chang e. As noted, the recent Sparrow case affirms Native rights to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes. Even better access to resources may be supported by the Treaty of 1752, which is unique to the Micmac of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but this remains to be tested in court. Dennis contends that the treaty guarantees Micmac rights to trade which, in turn, should "allow for negotiations for reasonable access to the [commercial fishery] resource". Whatever the details of court rulings and new poli cies, it is clear that an effective Native resource management capability may be useful, if not necessary.

Provincial Native leaders are already considering conceptual plans for an even broader resource management capability. A Micmac Fish and Wildlif e Commission, headed by the province's thirteen chiefs, might some day oversee management of resources such as fish, game, and possibly forestry. The vision, Dennis says, is for the Micmac to manage their own resources on reserve lands and elsewhere, empl oying Native biologists and managers.

"This fits within the broader framework of self government," suggests Dennis, and will require a coordinated effort between Native and non-Native institutions such as the Commission and DFO. What the Micmac envisi on is a partnership or co-management, which stands in contrast to current Native perceptions that DFO wants absolute control.

Written by Oliver Maass, November 1993

From the "How to Live in the Real World" education kit, created by the Nova Scotia Environment & Development Coalition..

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