• Some context for native fishing agreement

    If you have been reading the Owen Sound Sun Times this week, it will be apparent that the most recent commercial fishing agreement between the MNR and the “Saugeen Ojibway Nation” (SON) netters has caused quite the stir. Within hours of the agreement becoming public, social media outlets started to buzz, my phone rang countless times, and emails from the likes of concerned anglers, citizens and politicians began to fill up my email inbox. The announcement has sparked an outcry from anglers as the issue has brought forth some valid concerns for those with a vested interest in the local sportfishery. Yet as emotions run high with news of the agreement, a lack of understanding of the overall situation seems to prevail while informed opinion seems to be ‘lost on the water,’ so to speak.

    Fact: the new agreement doesn’t actually grant native netters any sort of new legal rights. In order to fully understand, one must look at past court decisions that have shaped the current issue at hand. Two specific cases have set the precedence here; “The Sparrow Decision” of 1990 in which the Supreme Court of Canada dealt with Aboriginal treaty/fishing rights, and the Fairgrieve ruling (aka Jones-Nadjiwon) of 1993 which affirmed the local Bands’ right to fish their traditional waters of Owen Sound and Colpoys Bay. These were monumentally important decisions that have reaffirmed the legal rights of Aboriginal people to harvest resources in traditional waters. Both decisions are full of legal literature, but to summarize, the local Nawash Ojibway Nation fishermen have the legal right to fish Colpoys Bay as well as Owen Sound. This right has been decided by high courts, and public opinion is not about to change these decisions.

    In 2000 the Saugeen Ojibway Nation and the Ministry of Natural Resources established the first agreement concerning commercial fishing in the area. The agreement was a set of guidelines establishing how commercial fishing was operated and took into account resource management and geography. Thus, this new agreement between the SON and MNR is not the first agreement regarding Native commercial netting in the two bays. In fact, this will be the third such agreement between the two parties since the Fairgrieve Decision. Each renegotiation has resulted in greater expansion of the “agreed upon” areas that SON netters may fish. This latest agreement is creating a such a stir because it opens up substantial waters within both bays to netting, areas which are focal points for recreational angling, and areas which have received the efforts of multiple volunteer angling clubs.

    Not unlike past agreements, the new one sets the new boundaries for SON netting, as well as “guidelines” for gill net mesh size and total lengths of net. The agreement also sets a Total Allowable Catch (or TAC) for native netters in certain geographical locations throughout the local waters of Georgian Bay. However, it must be noted that this is not a “TAC” that is governable by law due to the fact that court decisions have ruled that imposing quotas on local native commercial fishermen goes against treaty rights. Still, the agreement also states that the MNR and SON are to collaborate while determining TACs for each season through data sharing and further negotiation.The latest “agreed” TAC for Lake Whitefish by SON was listed as 48,901 kilograms. This TAC applies to Zone 3 which incorporates Colpoys and Owen Sound Bays.

    The new agreement also states that Native commercial netters will not fish in the far inner portions of each bay; i.e. beyond Balmy Beach in Owen Sound, and inside of the Government dock in Wiarton. The agreement states that SON “will make the best effort” to not net within a 1km radius of key rainbow trout spawning creeks such as Gleason Brook/Oxenden, Colpoys Creek, Bothwells Creek, Keefers Creek and Waterton Creek, during the early spring and fall.

    What seems to have angered local sport anglers about this agreement the most is the lack of consideration concerning recreational angling that takes place in the two bays. The words “sport fish” and “angler” are nowhere to be found in the new agreement and anglers are voicing their displeasure and arguing that they were kept out of the negotiation process. But the fact is, the MNR and SON didn’t have to consult anyone else - the court rulings set precedence establishing that Aboriginal rights to a fishery come first, before those of recreational angling. The MNR did not have to undertake a large-scale public consultation with local anglers, since the needs and wants of the anglers play second fiddle anyways. The MNR will undoubtedly take plenty of heat over this new agreement, but the reality is that, for the most part, the MNR is looking out for fish populations as best they can within the confines of the legal rulings regarding native treaty rights.

    Yet perhaps being denied a platform from which to voice their concerns may have exacerbated the ire of local anglers. Some concerns ring of truth whether they are spoken aloud or not. In this instance I’m talking about the simple fact that gill nets kill fish. They are far from a sustainable method of harvesting fish. For the most part, gill nets are not effectively selective in the fish they harvest. The new agreement sets a standard for mesh size at 4.5inches or larger. This mesh size will effectively kill Lake Whitefish, which are the primary target of the Native commercial fishery. Unfortunately, this gill net size will also effectively and indiscriminately kill steelhead (rainbow trout), brown trout, lake trout and salmon. These are fish that create a recreational fishery, and are largely dependent on the stocking efforts of local clubs. Incidental catches are to be expected and within the confines of both bays the rate of by-catch increases resulting in more dead salmon and trout. That is thousands upon thousands of dollars and time wasted if these hatchery raised trout and salmon find themselves in a gill net, and plenty will.

    How will anglers react when SON nets enter areas of the bay, which have not seen netting in any regular occurrence for quite some time? I doubt the SON nets will be greeted with cheers, and travelling anglers will no longer put Wiarton and Owen Sound on their lists of favorite trolling destinations. Gill nets pose a safety risk to recreational angling and pleasure boating. Tourism will surely suffer from the expansion of netting further into the bays as fisherman head somewhere else in the province to fish.

    The purpose of the agreement between the two parties is to make an attempt to manage the commercial fishery. Both parties understand this, and this agreement sets some valid guidelines to monitor commercial fishing. Will the guidelines be followed? Will the TAC guidelines be followed? Will SON commercial fishermen set nets in the local bays during the numerous derbies that take place each summer? These are some of the many questions that will be answered in the near future, and it appears that these answers will be totally dictated by the actions of SON, not the MNR or recreational anglers.

    I hope the SON fisherman understand the responsibility that comes with this agreement, as both the MNR and SON have confirmed that they will work together to monitor the fishery. Most importantly, they have agreed to practice commercial fishing with sustainability in mind …if that is indeed possible. Let’s hope so, the endurance (and perhaps the very existence) of a popular recreational fishery could be at stake.
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