The Miawpukek First Nation Band in Conne River has no historical ties to the commercial fishery, but it has become a fairly big player all the same.
In 1999, Netukulimk Fisheries Ltd. bought its first harvesting licence and hasn’t looked back.
The Miawpukek First Nation Band has grown its crab enterprise to a one million pound quota by buying licences and expanding their fishing fleet. — Submitted photo
Shayne McDonald, the company’s executive director, said that with the collapse of the traditional ways of making a living in Conne River — trapping, hunting and other woods-related activities — the band was looking for ways to build the community’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s.
“In 1999 we had a food fishery on the go where some of our people were developing skill sets related to this type of work,” he said.
“A couple of the participants suggested that it might make sense to enter the traditional fishery on a commercial scale to help some of our band members make a living.
“At the same time, the Marshall decision came down in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which basically said that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans could acquire fishing licences and transfer them to aboriginal communities.”
The provincial government took the view that the Marshall decision did not apply in this province. However, there was an Aboriginal Transfer Program through DFO that could help First Nations obtain licences from retiring commercial fishermen which would become First Nation communal commercial communal licences.
Netukulimk Fisheries’ first step was to acquire a crab licence.
A dip in crab prices early on was cause for concern, but it stuck with the program and today they are involved in a viable industry.
“When we started, we had a three- to five-year goal to have all our vessels manned by aboriginal crews,” McDonald said.
“However, we quickly realized a couple of things. Building a human resource pool of commercial fishers that can crew your vessels comes very slowly, especially from a community with no commercial fishery background.
“So we realized that we would not have fully staffed First Nations crewmembers in a short period of time. We came to understand that it makes sense to give job security to whoever your fishers are, whether they are from Conne River, Harbour Breton or Marystown. In the meantime our pool of First Nations fishers grows each year.”
Today the company employs 46 people, 28 of whom are non-aboriginal.
“We sell our catches of crab and groundfish to Quinlan Brothers and Beothuck Fisheries, which helps create more employment in the province,” McDonald said.
That first licence has grown into eight combined licences and eight vessels. This year the company will have approximately one million pounds of crab to catch, along with a groundfish quota.
Chief Misel Joe heard criticism about the First Nations fisheries at a fisheries meeting in Clarenville last December. One fisherman there alleged the First Nation was receiving preferential treatment from DFO when it came to acquiring licences and other matters.
“A popular misconception is that DFO has bought all the licences we’ve attained,” McDonald said.
“When we obtained our first licence we did have some help from DFO, but we took on significant debt financing to enable us to enter the fishery.
“Almost every enterprise purchased since then has been either paid 100 per cent by us or, in some cases, with partial help from the DFO program. The point is the community has invested significantly in this venture in the past 15 years. … We are governed by the same regulations as any enterprise owner and DFO is not treating us in any special way.
“The only difference in a communal fishery is that we can designate who we want our captains to be; we do have the flexibility to do that. Other than that, we play by the same rules, regulations and quota amounts as everyone else.”
McDonald said the company offers fishermen outside Conne River a chance to fish for multiple species in an enterprise offering decent percentage pay and good benefits.
“Individuals outside the community look at the growth of our communal fishery and say that we have close to a million pounds of crab — that we have a large share of the 3Ps resource,” he said.
“But when you look at it from the point that we have eight enterprises with over 2,000 band members as collective owners in the communal commercial licences, then it is not really big at all.
“Ours is a different type of ownership structure where every individual in the community owns a piece of the entity.”
McDonald said that the company plans to be a part of the fishery well into the future.
‘We’re hearing from science that the 3Ps crab biomass may be dropping because of climate change,” he said.
“However, cod may be making a comeback, and the upcoming European free trade agreement might translate into better prices for cod later on. …
“Whatever happens, if we do well, so will Newfoundland and Labrador.”