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Canadian snow crab quota leads to arson

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SHIPPAGAN, New Brunswick - The Canadian government announced May 2 that it was permanently including First Nations' and "inshore" fishermen in snow crab quotas. By the morning of May 5, demonstrators had burnt up four large fishing vessels, a fish processing plant, and a federal fisheries office in Shippagan, at the northeastern end of New Brunswick. By May 7, traditional crab fishermen in New Brunswick had launched a strike.

The snow crab fishery nets more than $250 million (Cdn.) per year in this region of Canada. Traditional crab fishermen of the Atlantic region declared that the government's decision to lower the fishing quota as well as spread it thinner would be fatal to their livelihood.

One of the boats burned belonged to the Big Cove First Nation. The other three were purchased by the government to give to First Nations bands for this season's crab fishery. Big Cove is a community of around 2,500 MikMaq people, 100 miles down the coast from Shippagan.

Robert Levi is chief of the Big Cove band. He says that even though the government's decision opened up the snow crab industry to non-Native inshore fishermen, the destruction of the boats and the fish plant was targeted at his people.

Levi says a fish processor in Shippagan held the keys to their boat, and could have turned the keys over to Levi, or moved the boat out of danger, but did not.

"They've been buying our snow crab for the last three years. This year, we decided to take it elsewhere and I feel that's where the problem started."

Levi says that the fish processing plant that burned, one of three in town, was the one that would have processed the Big Cove catch. Levi says it won't stop the band from fishing snow crab this season; they have 14 crab boats. But he is concerned for their safety.

"Hopefully nothing will happen to them, they can go out and exercise their right to earn a moderate livelihood and take part in the fisheries we have been denied for so long."

The Maritime Fishermen's Union of New Brunswick represents the inshore fishermen that the government included in the snow crab quota. Until a few years ago, inshore fishermen were limited to fishing lobster, herring, and mackerel. Maurice Theriault, the union's communications officer, says that the government, not the Native fishermen, was the target of the burnings.

"We can presume that maybe some people had lost their jobs and they were fishing on those boats. They want the government to move on their problem."

Theriault says he doesn't understand why the department of fisheries and oceans set the snow crab quota at 17,000 metric tons.

"It's much below the scientific advice. So, we disagree on it. We have followed the scientific process and we would have gone with the advice of 20,000 tons rather than that 17."

Margaret Tusz-King works with the Aboriginal Rights Coalition - Atlantic. It's an organization of church and native groups trying to ease the tensions that have resulted from the Canadian Supreme Court's 1999 Marshall decision, which upheld First Nations' fishing rights.

Tusz-King says that the violence over the crab quota is part of a broader issue related to conflicts that a French Canadian minority (Shippagan is a francophone community) has in an Anglo-majority province and country. The fishermen believe that the government's regulations have hurt, not helped, the fishery.

"In New Brunswick the crab fishery has been a point of contention among all fishermen for 10 or 15 years," Tusz-King says. "Many of the fisheries up here have been decimated over the last 20 years due to mismanagement. Stocks have shrunk incredibly and some of the fish that we relied on for food have become endangered species because they were overfished."

Even so, Tusz-King admits that First Nations people are being set up as scapegoats.

"There definitely is some resentment toward First Nations people, particularly since the federal government seems to be trying to make up to First Nations people solely on the backs of fishermen."

On the one hand, Tusz-King says, "the Canadian Government has been managing a major fishery and it's been going down the tubes."

On the other hand, after the arson incident she heard one Native fisherman say, "Wouldn't you know, every time those white guys get angry about something, we lose equipment."