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Indigenizing Our Perspective on Fisheries

The hit Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, premiered in March 2021 and has quickly attracted attention, becoming one of Netflix’s most watched films (1). The documentary outlines the impact of commercial fishing industries on ocean life, mentioning issues including overfishing, plastic pollution, and bycatch (1). The trending documentary makes many claims, but the main takeaway is that there is no such thing as sustainable fishing (1). The film has inspired many people who were shocked at the industrial scale of fishing, sparking debate and conversation over this important issue (2). However, programmes and organizations which were quoted in the film including Dolphin Safe, the Marine Stewardship Council, and the International Marine Mammal Project have accused the film-makers of misleading statements, taking interviews out of context, and quoting false statistics (1). Most importantly, others have argued that the documentary failed to include perspectives from Indigenous and other racialized communities. (3).

Brianna Fruean, an Indigenous Pacific Climate Activist from Samoa, stated that she felt the film lacked acknowledgement of solutions to the commercial fishing issue (3). She argued that the film’s message neglects the fact that Indigenous communities not only know how to fish sustainably, but have taken care of the ocean for centuries (3). The narrative from Indigenous communities is often missed when discussing how to save the ocean, but it is an imperative one (3). Fruean explained the Samoan fishing practice treats the ocean as a living, breathing thing, always returning the first fish caught as a sign of respect to the waters (3). Other practices include that of the Tagbanua people of the Philippines, who hunt for different species of fish throughout the year in order to maintain healthy populations (4). Methods of catching fish for Indigenous communities around the world are also vastly more sustainable (4).

Traditional Fishing in What is Currently Canada

First Nations and Inuit communities have been fishing with nets, hooks, longlines, spears, and traps in what is currently known as Canada for thousands of years (5). Through these practices, Nations have long since sustained themselves; their cultures are inseparable and intrinsically linked to the lands and waters (6). For Indigenous Nations, fishing is governed by laws and beliefs which are embedded into their languages and world views, and are ultimately centred on conservation for future generations (6). Long before industrial commercial fishing methods, Indigenous Nations had their own economies, successfully trading with other nations and European settlers (6).

The Colonization of Fishing Techniques

Reef Net illustration from Reef Net Technology of the Saltwater People, John Elliott, 1994: To Fish As Formerly

Straits Salish Fishery

The Straits Salish Reef Net Fishery, also known as the SX̱OLE technique, is an example of a sustainable and effective fishing method which allowed Indigenous nations to live in balance for thousands of years (6). Despite the method’s effectiveness, Reef Net Fishery bans were enacted in the early 19th century, and 50 years later, fishing rights were guaranteed in the Douglas Treaties (7). This method is unique to a few Straits Salish communities: the Lekwungen peoples, Songhees and Xwespsum (Esquimalt), the Sc’ianew (Beecher Bay), T’souke, Malahat, Semiahmoo, Xwelemi (Lummi), and WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) (7). The technique uses sophisticated Reef Net technology to harvest salmon by intercepting their migration routes in the Salish Sea (7). It requires deep knowledge of salmon migration routes and ocean currents, which was passed down to few Straits Salish communities (7). The ban compounded the loss of language, culture, and identity (7). Generations of Straits Salish people have worked to keep the knowledge of the SX̱OLE technique alive (7).

Nick XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton, assistant professor at University of Victoria, centers his teaching and research on the revitalization and resurgence of Indigenous knowledge through community-based and land-based research and education (8). His doctoral research focused on the revitalization of the SX̱OLE, which was brought to life in 2015 when he went back to the traditional waters almost a century after it was banned (9). Local high school students are now learning the fishery technology; no burning of fossil fuels and harmless release of unwanted bycatch make the method especially sustainable (9).

Mi’Kmaq Lobster Fishery

Another example are the Mi’Kmaq people, indigenous to the coastal regions of Eastern Canada, who depended on the sea for food, travel, and trade (10). This was such an important part of the lifestyle that it continues to be inextricably entwined with the belief systems, cultural myths and legends, language, and world-views of the Mi’kmaq peoples (11). Resource management decisions and regulations are based on principles of kindness, sharing, and a spiritual relationship with the natural world (10). Their management philosophy, called Netukulimk, dictates that one should ‘not take any more than necessary for survival in order to ensure that there are resources left for future use’ (11).

The Treaties established between the European settlers and the Mi’kmaq did not cede territory or resources, but were created for peace and friendship, and to protect the Mi’kmaq way of life (11). However, European settlers saw the treaties of peace and friendship as an opportunity to leverage into colonial expansion. Non-native commercial fishing inhibited Mi’kmaq access to natural resources; they were placed on reserve lands through a process referred to as centralization (11).

In the 1990 Sparrow Decision, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the rights of aboriginal people to fish for food, social, and ceremonial purposes, and that under the Constitution Act, these rights have a priority over other fishery purposes, including commercial fishing (11). Still, these rights were subject to overriding considerations, primarily conservation (11). Many communities signed agreements with the government throughout the 1990s, making Bands (councils that were created from the 1876 Indian Act and designed to undermine traditional First Nations governments, an act of colonialism which continues to impact Indigenous communities today) much more dependent on the government for fishing permission and dividing them from Bands who did not sign (11, 12). The few communities that refused to sign became strong proponents of a Mi’kmaw fishery management system, and ultimately, the Marshall Decision of 1999, involving Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi'kmaw man from Membertou, Nova Scotia, ruled that the Mi’kmaq have a treaty right to fish for commercial purposes in pursuit of a moderate livelihood (13). Though this was a landmark case, it did not resolve everything-- the failure to define moderate livelihood led to confusion, and violence between non-Indigenous lobster fishermen and the Mi'kmaq fishermen is ongoing (13).

What’s the problem?

Non-indigenous fishers say that the harvesting of lobster outside of the commercial season is unsustainable and poses a risk to conservation, though evidence does not back this claim. The Mi'kmaq of Sipekne'katik are concerned about conservation themselves and they take less than 5% of the lobster in the area (13). In fact, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), lobster stocks are healthy, and the province says that the landing of lobster has doubled in the last twenty years (14). Further, Sipekne’katik First Nation has seven licenses, only three of which are being used at the moment, with each license allowing for 50 traps-- 150 traps total (14). For perspective, the commercial fishery in that zone allows for up to 390,000 traps (14). The conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen has resulted in Mi’kmaq harvesters experiencing harassment, violence, property damage, theft, and the cutting and stealing of moderate livelihood lobster traps by non-Indigenous fishermen and protestors over decades (14). This led the Sipekne'katik First Nation to launch their own Mi’Kmaq-regulated, rights based, moderate livelihood lobster fishery, where they continue to work on their own management plans that will regulate Mi’kmaw fish harvesters to ensure conservation through the granting of fishing licenses to band members and continuous monitoring (14). Sipekne'katik Chief Mike Sack states that, “We have our own guardians that will enforce our rules and regulations, so there's no need for anyone to interfere at all” (13).

In March 2021, without consultation with Mi’kmaq Chiefs, the Fisheries Ministry released a policy that directly limits Mi’kmaq harvesters by forcing them into commercial fishing seasons, charging anyone who is caught fishing outside the commercial fishing season (15). Chief Mike Sack of Sipekne'katik said he will not accept the federal policy and may request help from United Nations peacekeepers (15).

The right to a moderate livelihood has not been reflected in the DFO’s regulations, nor has it been implemented (14). Due to the lack of legal framework to clearly define the concept, Mi’Kmaq attempts to pursue their own definition have been overruled by government policy, which continues to invalidate Mi’Kmaq authority over their own fisheries (15). Amber Bernard, Mi’Kmaq direct descendant of the late Grand Chief Gabriel Syliboy who focuses her career on Indigenous priorities, states that, “the Mi’Kmaq are continuously asserting their rights to a moderate livelihood as they face discriminatory policy, racism, violence, and greed” (15).

Northern Pacific Rim Fishing

Generally, Indigenous peoples of the Northern Pacific Rim have harvested salmon for subsistence and livelihood for more than 10,000 years (16). Management practices promote sustained abundance and access to fish by limiting risks of overharvest and population collapse (16). Traditional fishing technologies include weirs-- fences built across rivers to channel salmon into a trap, fish wheels-- stationary wheels powered by the flow of the river which scoop fish, and fish traps-- built next to the river mouth to catch fish while the tide is high (16). Much like the banning of SX̱OLE techniques, Indigenous management of Pacific salmon was intentionally disrupted and replaced by the colonial government, stripping the rights and jurisdiction from Indigenous people (16). This was the beginning of a struggle for access and governance authority that is ongoing today (16). Colonial governments and fishing companies sought to use resources in global markets; as such, the replacing methods led to the increased use of combustion engines, monofilament nets, and other fishing technologies for more ‘effective’ fishing (16). However, mixed stock fisheries, irreversible destruction of salmon habitats, and extreme harvesting pressure are some of the consequences that challenge the sustainability of colonial fishing management systems (16).

Re-Indigenizing Fishing Techniques

The historical abundance of salmon along the west coast of North America has drastically declined over the last two centuries of industrial harvest (17). However, for nearly two millennia prior to the industrial extraction of salmon, Indigenous peoples maintained active and balanced harvests of the species (17). The key difference between Indigenous and non-indigenous fishing practices is the methodology; contrary to popular belief, Indigenous fishing technologies are highly effective and allow fishers to harvest large quantities of fish (17). These technologies have been regulated by traditional structures of resource management that control harvest pressure (17). Whereas colonial societies emphasize the extraction of resources for short-term profit in a capitalistic society, Indigenous resource management is guided by key differences in cultural values and knowledge. It emphasizes multigenerational sustenance and reciprocity to protect the non-human world (16). Thus, the reintroduction of traditional fishing techniques is imperative for sustainable fisheries, particularly the traditional fishing gear that reduces ecological damage (17).

The foundation of effective and resilient resource management systems firstly addresses the health of ecosystems within legal and political institutions (16). In the same way that global economics shapes colonial political institutions, pre-colonial salmon fisheries have and continue to shape Indigenous institutions (16). Within these systems, the right to access land goes hand in hand with a set of responsibilities that protect future abundance and promote long-term stability (16). For example, some principles which guide the work of the Haíłzaqv Nation (residing in what is currently British Columbia) in modern management plans are (16):

“The right to use a river system comes with the responsibility to maintain a river system”(16)

“ The primary focus should be on what is left behind, not what is taken”(16)

Fishing and Conservation Today

In what is currently Nova Scotia, the Apoqnmatulti'k project, Mi'kmaq for "we help each other", has been in place since 2019 with plans to continue until at least 2022 (18). The project aims to use acoustic telemetry to study the movement and habitat of three species with the collaboration of Mi'kmaw knowledge holders and local harvesters and commercial fishermen, academic researchers and government scientists (18). This two-eyed approach uses the strengths of Indigenous knowledge and western science to create a more effective management system, and is particularly beneficial for conservation purposes (check out Shake Up the Establishment’s own blogpost about a Two Eyed Approach to Biodiversity). The species include eel, lobster, and tomcod, of which Mi’kmaq peoples are heavily dependent on for food and medicinal purposes (18). The conservation measures are not only imperative to protect the species, but also to protect major food sources for Mi’Kmaq communities from dropping due to commercial overfishing (18).

In what is currently Nunavut, Inuit in Sanikiluaq are working with the World Wildlife Fund to start a local fishery to harvest sustainably and build profit for the community (19). The project has received funding from the federal government, and Lucassie Arragutainaq, manager of the Sanikiluaq Hunters and Trappers Organization, has said that this interest and support will help the community eventually be able to invest in infrastructure to realize a local fishery, including a dedicated fishing vessel, a processing plant and a new community freezer for storage (19). Doug Chiasson, a senior specialist in marine ecosystems at WWF-Canada, who is working with Nunavut’s exploratory fishery projects, says that, “We’re able to draw on the great amount of knowledge harvesters have of the marine environment” (19).

Spencer Weinstein, PhD student from Waterloo University, is using research techniques from fundamental biology and ecology and working with the Kugluktuk Hunters and Trappers Organization to determine if the Arctic char fish population near Kugluktuk, Nunavut is declining (20). She states that including the knowledge and stories of the Indigenous people who live by the Coppermine River is imperative to gain a holistic understanding of what is happening (20). The partnership with the Kugluktuk Hunters and Trappers Organization not only provides profound knowledge to the project, but also helps the study in its sustainability, as fish samples come from the local harvesters rather than colonial methods which would catch unwanted species (20). The Arctic char itself is an important food source for the Inuit population, both culturally and practically (20).

For many years, Indigenous peoples across Canada have sought to counteract the effects that colonial dispossession of their lands has had, actively working to assert their sovereignty (16). Colonization has deeply impacted Indigenous peoples’ access to sustainable salmon fisheries, undermining traditional livelihoods and creating mass food insecurity among First Nations people (16). More and more, fisheries reconciliation processes are emerging across Canada, creating agreements between governments and Indigenous communities to allow true co-management and collaboration (16). For example, Coastal First Nations, a group of nine nations in coastal British Columbia, has recently negotiated a Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement (FRRA) with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (16). Still, much work remains to be done, and the process of returning to these traditional management systems is challenging (16). Among others, these challenges include recovering species population levels, rebuilding expertise in selective fishing technologies, as well as correcting the harms of colonial and anti-Indigenous legal frameworks (16).

Including Their Voices

Cecile Lyall, a young Inuit political science student based in what is currently Ottawa, states, “All we really want is economic equality, and to achieve that we need to stop the cultural prejudice that is imposed on us by not being allowed to benefit from our natural surroundings without having to drill into the ground” (21).

Niore Iqalukjuak from Clyde River, a community which has been fighting for forty-five years to protect the marine ecosystem from the destructive industry that is seismic testing (underwater explosions at decibel levels which have been shown to cause hearing damage to marine animals), states that, “We hunt the animals for food, but we still care about them. We have to protect them” (21). However, because animal rights and environmental groups have not listened to his community’s perspective, one of the most important issues has remained undiscussed, meanwhile Niore’s community has suffered economic attacks (21).

There are countless more serious issues which are swept under the rug when Indigenous voices are not included. When it comes to the conversation about sustainable fishing, we need to be listening to the people who have been living and fishing on these lands for thousands of years.


Positionality: Hello, Bonjour, my name is Lucia Fernandez, and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I live in what is currently known as Newmarket, Ontario Canada, the traditional territories of the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and the Anishinaabe peoples. The treaties of this land includes the Williams Treaties of 1923, which have greatly disadvantaged the original peoples of this land in many ways, including but not limited to unfair compensation for the land, disruption of harvesting rights, inadequate reserve lands, and ongoing denials of justice. I am a cisgender, bisexual woman of Latin ancestry. I immigrated to Ontario, Canada when I was four years old and have lived here ever since. My experience as a first-generation, Latina immigrant greatly impacts my perspectives and understanding of the world. I acknowledge those in my community who made it possible for me to live where I am today. However, I only speak on behalf of myself and do not intend to speak for others. I am passionate about environmental and societal justice, and I am privileged to be in the process of obtaining a post-secondary education in Political Science and Environmental Sustainability. This greatly inspires me to continue learning and working towards the goal of holding those in positions of power accountable.


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