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Decades-long dispute between Mi'kmaq community and commercial lobstermen escalates

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The waters of Nova Scotia, Canada, are home to one of the most lucrative lobster fisheries in the world. For decades, they have also held a conflict over how to balance Native treaty rights with commercial fishing regulations. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our Planet Money podcast reports.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Fisherman Alexander McDonald is a big guy in his late 50s. He's got a wide grin and a graying ponytail. And he explains he's a member of one of the bands of the Mi'kmaq First Nation.

ALEXANDER MCDONALD: The Sipekne’katik band of wild Indians. There's no other band that fights for our rights as much as we do.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And that fight has been playing out over the thing we're after today.

So what are we hunting for?

MCDONALD: Buoys with our name on it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And as soon as we spot Alexander's first buoy, it becomes clear there's something shellfishy (ph) going on. His first line of traps is far from where he left it, and as he hauls up one of the traps, something goes wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIN RATTLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whoa.

MCDONALD: Brand-new rope.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The rope has just snapped completely in half as the rest of the traps plunge back into the water. I ask Alexander if he suspects foul play.

MCDONALD: That's exactly what it is, eh? You know, let's mess with the Indian, right? Rope don't snap like that. That's brand-new rope. So somebody would have had to cut it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Indigenous fishing boats have become targets of line cutting and other sabotage because they say many Miꞌkmaq are fishing illegally. They're poaching. Alexander sees it differently.

MCDONALD: We had this long before you showed up. We showed you what a lobster - nobody ate lobster when you people showed up.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The Miꞌkmaqs legal right to fish dates back to peace treaties signed with the British in the 1700s. And even though for centuries after Native people were functionally excluded from the fishing industry, their fundamental right was upheld in 1999 by the Canadian Supreme Court. The court said the Mi'kmaq could fish and sell enough to make a, quote, "moderate livelihood," though they did not define that precisely. The decision was hailed as a victory for the Mi'kmaq. Many of whom took it to mean they could earn that, quote, "moderate livelihood" outside of existing fishery regulations, like seasons and licenses. The court decision was largely opposed by commercial fishermen who worried that a new wave of unregulated fishing could decimate fish populations.

Tensions grew over the years, and last year, they boiled over. Alexander McDonald's band of the Mi'kmaq announced they were starting their own fishery independent of commercial seasons or licenses managed by their own tribal government. And non-Native fishermen pushed back hard. Commercial fishermen stormed the docks and blockaded harbors in protests, and things escalated. Some Mi'kmaq fishers were assaulted. One of their boats was set on fire. And a lobster warehouse they used was emptied and burnt to the ground.

We reached out to several of the major fishermen's associations in the region multiple times, but they either didn't respond or wouldn't speak to us for this story. Industry spokesmen have made it clear that they condemn any violence and blame the conflict on the government's lack of clear policy and enforcement. And some commercial fishermen did speak to the press last year. Here's Lex Brukovsky (ph) explaining to the Buffalo Times-Tribune why it felt so urgent to stop any fishing before the start of the commercial season.

LEX BRUKOVSKY: To catch a lobster during the summer months is pretty much effortless. And people felt like if the government doesn't care, we care because we live here, and this is our livelihood.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It's a balancing act for the Canadian government - honoring treaty rights and facilitating economic development for the First Nations, on the one hand, and on the other hand, fishery regulations designed to ensure the waters off Nova Scotia stay sustainable and productive. For now, how that balance shakes out will hinge on finally defining that phrase moderate livelihood.

MCDONALD: What's your moderate livelihood? That's the question. Why can't we have the same moderate livelihood?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Alexander McDonald says the Mi'kmaq don't need the Canadian government to regulate how they fish. Conservation has always guided their way of life.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).