Mi’kmaw elders fear that the growing eel industry will harm adult eel populations
Some Mi’kmaw elders are concerned about the adult eel population as the industry that harvests young eels or glass eels grows.
Gordon LaBillois said his community of Ugpi’ganjig, or Eel River Bar First Nation, about 150 miles north of Moncton, was named for its abundance of eels.
LaBillois, 74, grew up fishing for adult eels.
“Whether you’re spearing eels or fishing reels with a hook on the line, it’s trying to physically take them out of their habitat,” he said.
“You’re down there trying to grab them behind their head because they have tremendous pulling power when they go backwards.”
Now, LaBillois said eels are a rare treat for his community. He said he was taught not to hunt the babies and is concerned that people are overfishing the glass eels.
“There’s a market for this resource, and when the resource is there, there are people who will benefit from it,” he said.
The glass eel fishery operates in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, where fishermen catch the baby eels in streams and rivers. The glass eels are then shipped live to markets in China and Japan, where they are grown for food.
After the supply of European eel collapsed, prices rose. In 2015, glass eels were sold in the Maritimes for $4,685 per kilogram.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has a commercial quota of 9,960 kilograms per season. In an attempt to get First Nations communities involved in the fisheries, DFO took 14 percent of quotas from commercial license holders and allocated them to nine First Nations in 2022.
This led to a challenge in the Federal Court of Canada by three existing commercial licensees. A court decision is expected in May.
Some First Nations enter the fishery with license quotas, while other First Nations fishermen attempt to harvest with treaty rights. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Donald Marshall Jr. had the contractual right to hunt, fish, and gather in order to earn a moderate living.
Fabian Francis, the moderate livelihood coordinator for the Eskasoni First Nation, about 170 miles east of Halifax, said he grew up with his father eel harvesting.
“I want it to be sustained consistently, you know, my kids, for generations,” Francis said.
He started harvesting eels last year and sees it as a way to earn money for his family. Francis said he caught about 25 pounds of glass eel and made about $55,000 last season. He said many fishermen came to see the eel fishery as if they were winning the lottery.
He said it’s no secret his community faces a shortage of jobs. Statistics Canada reported an unemployment rate of 25 percent for Eskasoni in 2016.
Francis said 120 people from his community are registered with the modest livelihood fisheries. He said the Fishermen are awaiting approval from the Eskasoni Band Council and the DFO to start the season.
He said when he’s waded into the rivers and streams he sees a healthy eel population, but if that changes at some point he’d be willing to stop.
“It’s not about money”
In 2020, DFO shut down the commercial balding industry due to an influx of moderate-livelihood Mi’kmaw fishermen. DFO said it is attempting to conserve the bald population by channeling all bald fishing through license-based fishing.
“Conservation is our top priority and we continue to work with First Nations to advance their treaty rights,” DFO said in a statement emailed to CBC News.
Eel season runs from March to June, while the Mi’kmaw fish for adult eels during the winter, spring, and summer. DFO said it regularly monitors the health of both populations and sets quotas based on that data.
Kerry Prosper, from the Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaw Nation, about 180 kilometers northeast of Halifax, takes youth onto the ice to spear eels to pass on traditional knowledge.
In years past, Prosper said they were able to catch hundreds of eels, but on his most recent trip, they only caught three.
He said he was concerned that eels were being fished both as adults and as babies and that he thought the eel fishery needed to be slowed so that the eel population could be studied.
“If you have enough food and we know it’s going to last seven generations, OK, maybe we’re talking about commercial fishing,” Prosper said.
He said by slowing down the eel industry, perhaps the eel population will be stronger for the next generation.
“It’s not about money, it’s about continuing the way of life and traditions and about our health,” said Prosper.
“Eels are very healthy. They are sacred to us.”