Overcrowding at Port Mouton Harbour leads to dispute, delay in opening of herring fishery

by Brittany Wentzell

  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL PHOTO</p><p>Signage next to the federal wharf in Port Mouton outlining rules set in place by the Port Mouton Harbour Authority. A dispute between the harbour authority and the Little Hope Management Committee led to the shut down and later re-opening of the roe herring fishery off the coast of Port Mouton.</p>
  • <p>BRITTANY WENTZELL</p><p>Vessels tied up at the Port Mouton wharf.</p>

A dispute over space and overcrowding in Port Mouton Harbour triggered a late start to the local roe herring fishery this year.

New rules that the Port Mouton Harbour Authority set out stipulating who can berth their vessels and offload herring at the federal wharf led to the dispute.

It caused the Little Hope Management Committee to vote to shut down the lucrative fishery over concerns that some members would be shut out of the fishing season.

"This whole approach, this whole policy, is a reaction to concerns about congestion last year," said Sarah Shiels, lawyer for the harbour authority.

"There were real concerns about the number of vessels and I've heard different terms like 'chaos' and confusion.'

There were a lot of boats milling in and about the harbour."

The Little Hope Management Committee has managed the fishery for around 20 years.

Shiels says during the 2016 season, some of the vessels participating were much larger than some of the home fleet vessels generally docked in the harbour.

As well, some of the transient vessels arrived unannounced and did not follow harbour rules, causing risk of collision and injury, according to Shiels.

Besides issues on the water, the increased traffic and heavy equipment required on the wharf side of things was becoming problematic, leading to fears of infrastructure damage.

The season for the herring fishery runs from August 15 to November 20, but generally most members start fishing at the beginning to mid-September.

New rules were issued in mid August, prompting a dispute, and later, negotiations between legal counsels representing both parties.

The herring season provides income to many fishermen just before the beginning of lobster season in southwest Nova Scotia. Upwards of 70 vessels take part in the fishery each year, around a dozen of which are local to Port Mouton, with the rest coming from places like Yarmouth or Shelburne.

"It's a nice fill-in. It gives the gang on deck a decent month's work before lobstering comes and takes some of the pressure off of that," said Johnny Acker, a fisherman and vessel owner from Jordan Bay.

Acker says the income from a month or so of fishing herring can earn up to $20,000

Because the fishery is done off Little Hope Island, Port Mouton is the most convenient place to tie up in terms of travel time, and is where buyers have traditionally set up to buy fish. Some fishermen keep their vessels in port for the duration of the fishery and rent cottages in the area.

However, the harbour authority proposed stipulations that would restrict the amount of activity in the harbour, particularly from non-local vessels.

Each of the five buyers who purchase fish at the wharf are allowed berthage sites for five vessels. They are allowed to choose who gets to use those spaces. They are then allowed to purchase from various transient vessels who make use of the harbour.

The harbour authority proposed capping that number at four vessels, which would wait outside the harbour and be called in to offload catches. The management committee took issue with leaving some of their paying members out of where most buyers set up.

"Most of our members are looked after, but they [the management committee] are standing by the members who aren't," said Peter Partington, spokesperson for the management committee, before the end of negotiations .

"Our objective isn't to make sure fish stay in the water to be caught by a handful of boats. Our objective is to make sure our members have fair access."

After negotiations with the management committee, it was decided each of the five buyers in the harbour would be given a cap of five transient vessels instead of four. Those vessels will also now be allowed to refuel. Initially the harbour authority was not going to allow refueling at the wharf.

Acker was chosen by a buyer to sell his fish at the wharf. He said he was happy with that, but worried about those who might not have the opportunity to sell their catch.

"I felt good about it, but I didn't feel good about it. It's pitting fisherman against fisherman," he said.

However, Partington says his group has not challenged the harbour authority's safety concerns and that they would like members to offload their fish in a safe manner.

"Our objective is to have fair access and a safe fishery that's well managed and profitable," said Partington.

Fifty vessels from the fleet are now able to take part in the fishery from Port Mouton Harbour, and Partington says they are the ones that need access to the harbour the most. Other participants in the fishery will have to look at other options such as private wharves.

Some other stipulations remain the same, including the harbour authority's request that the transient vessels make arrangements to dock at other wharves in the case of inclement weather as they say the harbour is at capacity and cannot accommodate them.

Partington says Lockeport has offered them berthage in the future, but notes that the distance between the port and the fishing grounds adds to travel time and costs. Some may take advantage of that offer.

Partington says there isn't another public wharf in Queens that can accommodate their fleet and that they will be looking into some long-term management plans. Although the group took issue with some of the stipulations and the swiftness in which they were requested, Partington says the management committee agrees with the harbour authority on many of the issues.

"In the long term if all of our members participate, we agree with them that that harbour can't deal with them," said Partington, adding that the harbour can't sustain the numbers unless it is upgraded, which would be in Department of Fisheries and Ocean's hands.

Shiels also mentioned infrastructure issues saying wharves in southwest Nova Scotia can quickly become unsafe as they are often the most exposed in the province, being open to the North Atlantic and busy year round.

"The capacity of the infrastructure to accommodate increased activity should be assessed in advance of heightened offloading activities - perhaps by Small Craft Harbours, DFO," said Shiels.

Moving forward, most of the fishermen will likely wrap up fishing early as they have been asked to leave Port Mouton Harbour by the end of October, something Partington says his group will examine in the future, but not at the present time as they're just happy to have the fishery open again.

"I think we responded appropriately and fairly and I think the harbour authority did as well ... the big lesson is working together for a common purpose," said Partington. "We have our role to play, the harbour has theirs. We have to respect that."

A management plan will be worked on for the 2018 season to ensure all of the matters are settled. The fishery re-opened on September 25 at 7 p.m.

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