ON ST. MARY’S BAY, Nova Scotia — Under the close watch of federal officers on surrounding patrol vessels, Robert Sack navigated his old boat toward his clandestine traps in the cold waters that his people have fished for centuries, expecting to be arrested at any moment.
In an act considered illegal by the Canadian government, Sack’s first mate dropped a grappling hook overboard to haul up a bounty of traps loaded with lobsters in what has become one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.
Each trap had a special tag belonging to their band of the Indigenous Mi’kmaw people, who insist that a 269-year-old treaty grants them the right to fish when and how they want. But the government has rejected their assertion, and officers have seized their traps, confiscated their boats, and even arrested some of their fishermen.
“We’re taking a big chance, but if we don’t come out here and fight for what’s rightfully ours, we won’t have anything,” said Sack, 43, whose crew, including several of his children and other relatives, escaped arrest that day.
In recent years, as the long-frigid waters off southwestern Nova Scotia have warmed, the temperatures of St. Mary’s Bay have reached a kind of sweet spot for lobster. Since 2000, the lobster catch across Atlantic Canada has more than doubled, while the value of that catch tripled, to nearly $1.3 billion in 2019 — more than twice the revenue generated by lobster landings in New England.
About half of the Canadian catch comes from the waters off Nova Scotia, where local lobstermen sold nearly $700 million in 2019, about triple their revenue in 2000.
With other fisheries in decline and valuable markets in Asia boosting prices, the increasing lobster catch has raised the stakes for local fishermen, including the Mi’kmaw, whose income derives mainly from fishing. As a result, long-simmering tensions between the Mi’kmaw and commercial fishermen, who have lobbied the government to shut down what they consider an illegal fishery, have boiled, in some cases leading to violence.
Commercial lobstermen revolted in 2020 when Sack’s band, the Sipekne’katik, asserted their “treaty right” to fish weeks before the lobster season officially opens in late November. The commercial lobstermen staged mass protests at government offices, and some of them blockaded Mi’kmaw vessels, sabotaged their traps, and shot flares at them. Others vandalized two pounds, where Indigenous fishermen stored their lobster, torching one in a fire that killed large numbers of lobster.
In one melee, as rocks and racist epithets were hurled, someone fired a flare gun into Sack’s van, setting it ablaze, destroying the vehicle and thousands of dollars of fishing equipment.
“I was horrified,” said Sack, who bought the Chevy Express with a loan from his mother. “It was a pretty hard blow.”
Some commercial fishermen condemned the violence. But many of them blamed the Sipekne’katik, and particularly their controversial chief, contending he intentionally provoked the confrontation shortly before standing for reelection.
Here, commercial fishing seasons are sacrosanct, designed to maximize the overall catch while ensuring the sustainability of lobster. The Sipekne’katik, a band of about 2,700 people, have been upsetting that careful balance by fishing during the molting season in the summer, often when lobsters’ shells have yet to fully harden and they can be easier to catch in large numbers.
Colin Sproul, a fifth-generation lobsterman who represents about 2,000 commercial fishermen as president of the Unified Fisheries Conservation Alliance, blamed the federal government for failing to enforce fishing laws.
In the wheelhouse of a $1.6 million fishing boat he had just built — a reflection of the great wealth produced by the local lobster fishery — Sproul said he spent years trying to stay on the sidelines of the conflict. But when the Sipekne’katik flouted the rules by fishing out of season, it was too much.
“This is about our livelihoods as well,” said Sproul, who led hundreds of lobstermen to protest outside local offices of federal fishery officials. “I couldn’t stand by. Somebody had to speak up.”
Much of the conflict stems from a controversial ruling by the Canadian Supreme Court, which 23 years ago affirmed that a 1752 treaty between the Mi’kmaw and the British gave the Indigenous people the right to fish and sell their catch. But the ruling was open to significantly different interpretations. The justices wrote that their treaty rights were “limited to securing ‘necessaries.’”
The ambiguity of those words led the justices shortly afterward to issue a rare clarification, saying the treaty rights to fish could still be regulated “on conservation or other grounds.”
Tensions between the tribal fishermen and commercial lobstermen flared again last summer.
After Sipekne’katik officials issued more “treaty” tags for their lobstermen to set traps before the official fishing season began, someone cut the lines of nine of their fishing boats, setting them adrift in St. Mary’s Bay, while others blocked access to wharves with concrete barriers, band fishermen said.
They also say they’ve been harassed repeatedly and followed by federal fisheries officers, who have seized some of their boats and confiscated their traps.
And then in August, Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack was arrested “for promoting an illegal fishery.”
“They were trying to scare me,” said Sack, who was released shortly afterward and isn’t related to Robert Sack. “It’s very unfortunate it’s playing out this way. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails.”
Sipekne’katik fishermen say they fish in the warmer months, before the government-sanctioned fishery starts, mainly because it’s safer. With many living on a limited income, most have significantly smaller, older boats that can’t navigate the heavier seas and powerful tides in the Bay of Fundy like the more rugged vessels used by many commercial fishermen.
They also dispute claims that they’re harming the fishery by fishing in the warmer months, insisting that most of the lobster they catch in the late summer have hard shells. They note that Maine lobstermen, who are allowed to set traps through the summer, have seen their fishery boom as well.
Moreover, they add, Sipekne’katik landings are minuscule compared to the rest of the fishery. In 2020, the band’s roughly 100 fishermen caught 125,000 pounds of lobster, valued at $1.4 million, compared with 60 million pounds in the commercial fishery, which was valued at $712 million, they said.
“We’re just trying to empower our people, and not get kicked to the bottom,” Chief Sack said.
But federal fisheries officials say the Sipekne’katik are violating the law and note that there’s a thriving black market not reflected in the catch data provided by the band.
The Indigenous fishermen by law can still take part in what regulators call a “food, social, and ceremonial” fishery, which allows every member of the Mi’kmaw to fish five traps throughout the year. But federal regulators say it’s illegal for them to sell their catch, which the Indigenous fishermen dispute.
Canadian fisheries officers over the past year confiscated more than 2,300 traps, released more than 12,000 lobsters back into the sea, arrested at least 31 people, and issued fines of about $150,000 for illegal fishing in St. Mary’s Bay.
“We’re dealing with an unauthorized fishery,” said Noel d’Entremont, acting director of conservation and protection for the Maritimes region at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
While he said federal officials have sought to diffuse tensions, he acknowledged the challenges of doing that while cracking down on the Sipekne’katik’s treaty fishery.
“The atmosphere remains tense,” d’Entremont said.
During an outing in August with journalists from the Globe, Robert Sack was cruising across St. Mary’s Bay, with federal patrol boats and a Coast Guard cutter following his rickety 38-foot boat from about half mile away.
But Sack and his crew of six — most of them teenagers — were undeterred, adamant they were in the right. In the weeks before, fisheries officers had already confiscated a third of their traps. The previous year they seized more than 100 of them.
“This is what we have to do now to get our rights recognized,” he said.
Several hours later, Sack hauled up his final trawl and started back to the wharf, escorted by a speedboat manned with members of his bands, Indigenous “guardians” assigned to protect them.
It was a good day. The officers left them alone — which Sack believed was the result of being accompanied by journalists — and all their traps were where they had last dropped them. Fisheries officers monitor the Sipekne’katik closely, and several were patrolling the wharf when the journalists arrived.
The crew was bringing home 445 pounds of lobster, which Sack would sell on the black market for little more than $2,000 — about half the value of lobster on the legal market at the time.
But Sack said it was about more than the money.
“This is our history, who we are,” he said. “We can’t give up. We can’t give in. We will continue to fight.”