Tempers and the weather both were threatening on November 13 as members of the Grand Manan Fishermen's Association (GMFA) gathered at the office for a speakerphone meeting with MP John Williamson regarding the sale of lobster licenses away from Grand Manan. The opening of lobster season had been delayed because of wind, and the fishermen used the time to express their concerns over the management of their fishery.
In the past, there was a residency policy for lobster licenses: those fishing in an area had to be resident in it, and the license was not transferable elsewhere. Laurence Cook, chair of the GMFA Lobster Sector, says that at some point in the past this policy was rewritten and fishermen were not notified. "We were shocked" when the first license was transferred. Since then, 10 licenses have been lost from Grand Manan to Nova Scotia. Nine are controlled by one corporate interest, Yarmouth Sea Products, and six of those are native licenses. The tenth is on lease to a private individual. A November 12 press release from the GMFA states that "in the opinion of LFA 38 license holders [these are] 10 too many."
Another concern is enforcement of an owner/operator policy in which corporate entities would not be allowed to hold multiple licenses. "It's supposed to be one owner, one license," Cook says. The fishermen also want enforcement of a 30‑day transfer policy so that a license assigned to a boat must remain with that boat for at least 30 days.
Fishermen had been frustrated in their requests for meetings with officials and were asking acting Fisheries Minister Gail Shea to address their concerns and to at least impose a temporary moratorium on license transfers.
Four boats cut loose
While the meeting went on, a crowd of approximately 150 gathered in the parking lot. Several boats from Nova Scotia had arrived to set traps and became the target of the group's frustration. According to fisherman Karl Worthen, one boat was cut loose at Ingalls Head and three more at North Head. Word reached Seal Cove before the crowd did, and three Nova Scotia boats there departed. With full loads of traps and their crews aboard, they required permission from the Department of Fisheries to leave Grand Manan. This was granted, and the boats returned to Nova Scotia.
Corporal Chantal Farrah of the RCMP confirms that officers were called to Ingalls Head wharf around 11 a.m. regarding a disturbance. As of Wednesday, no charges had been laid, but an investigation is under way.
In the conference call with MP Williamson, Cook had requested a temporary freeze on license transfers in hopes of averting potential violence. "He said no. If DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] enforced their own policy, this wouldn't have happened," Cook says. "We don't condone activity like [that], but I understand it."
A representative of Yarmouth Sea Products did not return calls.
Impact on the economy
The next day, November 14, a community meeting was held to address the issue. Cook gave the audience of approximately 250 people some background and reiterated the association's concerns. There are 138 lobster licenses on Grand Manan, and Cook estimated that every one lost impacts 1% of the island's economy. "Nova Scotia boats don't contribute to businesses here." He doesn't blame the people buying and selling licenses. "I blame DFO, whose policy allows transfer to people who shouldn't have it."
There was some discussion about whether the Nova Scotia boats had observers or whether they will be allowed to set traps around Grand Manan but work out of Nova Scotia ports. "We fought for those boats to set out of Grand Manan," Cook said. DFO let them leave without observers but will not force them to come back. GMFA Project Manager Melanie Sonnenberg confirmed that the boats did arrive with observers and also had coverage by an aircraft.
Cook explained that native licenses do not have the 30‑day transfer policy, which means a boat could fish LFA 34 gear one day on one side of the line, and LFA 38 gear the next day on a native license. Mike Simms commented that aboriginal people should own and operate their own vessels, and Cook noted that the native fishermen on the island support the GMFA.
Another problem raised by audience members was the difficulty fishermen encounter in getting loans to buy boats and licenses. Some commented that the process moves too slowly in New Brunswick; Nova Scotians can more easily buy licenses because it is easier for them to get the money. Sonnenberg noted that the provincial government offered money for a working group on the loan issue and said they had been working with the loan board for the past five years. "Don't lose sight of the residency thing," she cautioned. "That's the quickest route" for a solution.
GMFA President Brian Guptill said that other areas have residency policies. "LFA 33 [near Shelburne, N.S.] has had a residency policy for years. Snow crab and other fisheries have it." Grand Manan's requests for the same regulations have been refused. "We're second‑class citizens" as long as non‑residents are allowed to hold licenses to fish around Grand Manan. He said a lawyer has been hired to argue their case, and he asked each fisherman to donate a crate of lobsters. The buyers will put the money into a legal fund; if the government backs down the money will be returned. "I do believe we can get some action by taking the federal government to court," he said.
Mayor Dennis Green spoke briefly. He said that when approached by the GMFA the village sent a letter of support to the minister of fisheries, also requesting a meeting. "Take a drive down to Ingalls Head; look at the boats that are loaded and ready to go fishing," he said. "There are not as many as there used to be. The only thing we have is lobster. If anything happens to that we might as well close up and get out of here. Now is the time for everyone to come together" in support of the cause.
Liberal MLA Rick Doucet, who attended the meeting, said he was trying to communicate with Gail Shea and John Williamson. He said Shea "didn't understand the rationale" of what was going on, and urged her to get a briefing from her staff. He was trying to get a commitment from her for a meeting.
Cook appealed to members of the community to call their MP and the fisheries minister. "Let them know your vote will depend on it."
Near the end of the session, word was received that the fisheries minister might schedule a meeting in January. Cook declared this unacceptable and encouraged people again to "make some noise."
People were urged to phone, fax and e‑mail. GMFA Program Coordinator Bonnie Morse said that in February 13,000 letters regarding the owner/operator issue "basically seized up the department." The GMFA will supply form letters for those who don't want to write their own. Their website, <www.gmfa.nb.ca>, and Facebook page will provide further information. "Come to our office," Sonnenberg said. "We'll give you a [phone] line."
Fisheries office blockaded
A protest was suggested for the following day; however, members of the audience called for immediate action and a group decided to walk over to the fisheries office following the meeting. Cook and Doucet both appealed for calm.
About 75 people made the few minutes' walk up the road to the fisheries office, which was closed for the day. Shortly thereafter, a truck loaded with lobster traps arrived. A row of traps was laid across the front of the parking lot. Micah Small said it symbolized "this is where we draw the line." Several more trucks full of discarded traps salvaged from the nearby dump quickly followed. Within about half an hour a six‑foot wall of traps was built by an energetic gang of fishermen. The protest was peaceful and RCMP officers watched from a distance and kept an eye on traffic.
Someone brought poster board, and Bobbie Jo Libby began making signs in support of the fishermen, aided by her son Tucker, 2. "Keep Grand Manan licenses on Grand Manan!" they read.
"Block the door," someone called, and the next loads of traps were piled in front of the main and side entrances of the office.
"It's a stupid situation," observed Bradley Small of the license dispute. He doubts fisheries policy‑makers have actually been to fishing communities or want to deal with fishermen. "Ministers do things for political expediency. It doesn't come out in favor of conservation or the people on the ground."
"DFO doesn't want to help us out," said Bradley James Field. "You go out there and break your back every day to provide for your family..." He said that the Nova Scotia boats carried large crews of eight or 10 men, allowing them to fish around the clock in rotating shifts, while Grand Mananers' day ends in time for supper. The LFA 34 season in southwest Nova Scotia opens on November 26, and he believed they intended to fish around Grand Manan prior to that and then return home. The best catches come in the first week or two of the season. He estimated that four big Nova Scotia boats could set 2,250 traps, and he thought that they would stay close to the line dividing the two zones.
The consensus among those gathered was that the Nova Scotians were not to blame, nor was there particular animosity toward the local fishery officers. The frustration lies with federal officials and policy‑makers.
"I hate doing this to these guys," Caleb Green said as the last gap in the wall of traps was closed. "But it's a message."
"The only time [officials] ever listen to Grand Manan is when Grand Mananers get riled up," agreed Lee Crossman. "We've got to get their attention somehow."
Temporary freeze enacted
All of this activity generated some attention at last. On November 15 the fishermen got their meeting with Gail Shea via conference call. The result was a temporary freeze on license transfers and a promise to hold a meeting to address the residency issue. Asked if he was pleased with the result, Laurence Cook said, "Kind of." It's unclear how long the temporary freeze will last. "It's better than it was yesterday," he said.
Melanie Sonnenberg was encouraged by the meeting. "We laid out our issues. We hope the minister will keep [the temporary freeze] in play till we can talk more. I found Gail to be well‑briefed, understanding and interested. She has been to Grand Manan, and she is from a fishing community. For us this is a great stride forward, but we can't stop now. We have to find a satisfactory solution for the community." She is hoping for a face‑to‑face meeting soon.
Meanwhile, Bonnie Morse is heartened by the response from residents. "The community support has been overwhelming."
On November 16 Grand Manan's fleet of approximately 100 boats set their traps, after a three-day delay because of the weather. Around the wharf it appeared to be business as usual. The fishermen didn't have a lot to say about the week's events and were glad to be finally under way. At Wednesday's protest, Monte Brown summarized the feelings of his colleagues. "Stuff happens when people get heated up," he said. "Everybody just wants to fish, really."