MEAFORD, Ontario - Fish wars are in danger of breaking out on the Great Lakes again with Indian tribes on one side and the government and sports anglers on the other.
Following the apparent collapse of a much-touted fish co-management agreement, the Ontario ministry of Natural Resources seized 3,000 pounds of fish caught by Indian fishermen who had braved the icy waters to set their nets in the first days of the new year.
"It's hard dangerous work out there and now we can't pay our crew," said Guy Nadjiwon whose family has fished the waters for generations.
Last June, after the province spent $14 million (Canadian) buying out fish quotas of 10 non-Native Bruce Peninsula operations, the area's two Ojibway bands, the provincial natural resources ministry and Indian and Northern Affairs reached a fish co-management agreement.
That agreement was breached when the natural resources ministry failed to share lakewide fish data as promised, said Guy Nadjiwon from the Chippewas of Nawash Cape Croker reserve on the Bruce Peninsula which juts out into Lake Huron.
"So we retaliated by fishing off Meaford," said Nadjiwon whose family owns one of two fish tugs which began fishing the waters off Meaford on Jan.1.
The tugs had to break through the ice on the harbor to get out onto the lake, and then the crew, carrying sledgehammers, had to climb onto the outside of the tug to break off the ice formed when the spray hit below zero temperatures.
"If we don't keep the boat free of ice, it builds up, the boat becomes top heavy and tips over," said Nadjiwon.
A resources ministry map of the agreement shows the waters available to the Ojibway for commercial fishing include almost the entire Bruce Peninsula to an area about 25 kilometers west of Meaford.
But Native leaders have always insisted an 1836 treaty gives them the right to fish for trade as far as Collingwood, 25 miles east of Meaford.
"So now we're back to where we were before the agreement," said Nadjiwon.
That's not how the natural resources ministry sees it.
Hundreds of pounds of Native-caught fish were seized by the ministry and on Jan. 5 fish wholesalers were ordered not to buy more. The order applies to fish caught by the Nadjiwon tug and a tug owned by Jay Jones also of Cape Croker, said John Cooper spokesperson for the ministry's Lake Huron Management unit.
"We've determined they have been fishing outside of the agreement area," said Cooper who disputes Nadjiwon's charge it was the ministry which breached the agreement first.
The fish seized at a fish wholesaler in Owen Sound represented one day's catch by the two Native tugs, Cooper said.
Fish wholesalers who don't follow the order could face fines as high as $100,000 (Canadian).
The ministry by seizing fish - worth about $6,000 (Canadian) - without laying charges, put the Native fishers in an impossible position, Nadjiwon said.
"We want our day in court so we can fight this and prove we are right," he said.
Cooper said the fish were seized as part of an ongoing investigation. They will be sold and the money held in trust. If charges are laid and proved in court the money will be forfeited, if not the funds will be returned to the Indians, Cooper said.
John Perks who owns a non-Native fish tug in Meaford said Natives took 60,000 pounds of his 70,000 pound whitefish quota last year.
"They've got a million-pound quota of their own but they still have to come and take mine," he said.
Although the ministry has ordered fish wholesalers not to buy from them, Jones and Nadjiwon said they had no choice about going out Jan.6. Their nets set the previous afternoon had to be brought back in.
"We've got no one to sell our fish to, so we'll have to let it rot," Nadjiwon said.
Nawash Chief Ralph Akiwenzie said he wants to keep the situation low key so as not to end up with a repeat of the fish wars of recent years, when thousands of meters of Native nets were destroyed and a Native fishing tug was set afire and then sunk.
"We want to create a climate for dialogue," Akiwenzie said.
He said the co-management agreement needs to be fine-tuned, but it does allow his people to fish off Meaford where they have "an allocation" and treaty rights.
"The agreement is in its infancy, there are bound to be problems with interpretation," he said.
Nawash bylaw enforcement officers who were at the dock all week to weigh fish brought in by the tugs are monitoring the situation, Akiwenzie said.
Nadjiwon and Jones said they will hold off fishing until they arrange a meeting with their Indian band council.
On Jan.6 the situation escalated when Jones brought in his nets and about 50 angry and sometimes jeering residents had to be kept back from the dock by police.
"That's not your fish, you're raping the waters," shouted one man cheered on by the crowd as Jones and his three-man crew unloaded more than 3,000 pounds of fish - 26 boxes of whitefish and five boxes of lake trout.
"There's a box of fish, take it home with you, it's no good to me," said Jones as he threw a box of lake trout on the dock.
There were no takers.