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Lifelines: Canada's East Coast Fisheries

Cross Currents
500 Generations of Aboriginal Fishing 
in Atlantic Canada
Today's Fishery: A Crisis in Atlantic Canada
Cross Currents: 
500 Generations of Aboriginal Fishing in Atlantic Canada


Over the past five centuries, the fishery resources that communities in Atlantic Canada have depended on for thousands of years have dwindled rapidly. In some cases, overfishing has caused them to disappear completely, and competition for scarce resources has created a growing crisis between Native and non-Native fishermen in Atlantic Canada.

This situation came to a head following the Supreme Court of Canada's Marshall decision in September 1999, which re-affirmed rights guaranteed in treaties signed between the Crown and the Mi'kmaq in 1752 and 1760. These treaties, which recognized aboriginal fishing, hunting, and trading rights within traditional Mi'kmaq territories, were re-affirmed on the condition that Native fishermen seek a "moderate living" and do not endanger the survival of the fish stocks.

In the Fall of 1999, non-Native fishermen appealed the Marshall decision, requesting that it be re-heard. The appeal was denied. Instead, the Supreme Court clarified its opinion, limiting aboriginal rights to fishing only, while imposing the same federal licensing regulations on both the Mi'kmaq and on non-Native fishermen. However, the terms of the regulations - including seasonal rules and amounts to be caught - are strongly contested. The long-term social and economic implications of these decisions and the new arrangements they require remain to be seen.

Of course, the very survival of Atlantic fishery extends well beyond these Canadian issues. Today, the future of an ancient tradition and a modern industry hangs in the balance, in the face of competing national and community-based regional interests.




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