Mary Ann Holland, in the foreground, says a poacher tried to harass and threaten her in spring 2023 in St. George when she was seated in a vehicle, observing illegal fishingSubmitted

A New Brunswick businesswoman is suing more than 100 people, most of them Indigenous, who she says are stealing American baby eels in the southern part of the province, threatening the species’ long-term survival.

Mary Ann Holland accuses the senior leadership of the Wolastoqey First Nation in New Brunswick of encouraging its members to poach the eels, also called elvers or glass eels, on several rivers in 2022 and 2023.

The businesswoman from Rothesay, near Saint John, has also taken legal action against Ottawa for the way it has managed the lucrative fishery in the Maritimes, whose seasons have been shortened or cancelled in three of the last five years over poaching concerns and dwindling stocks, including this year’s season.

Dwindling eel stocks around the world have pushed the price up to as much as $5,000 per kilogram, making elvers the most valuable seafood export by weight in Canada.

In an amended statement of claim filed March 7 at the Court of King’s Bench in Fredericton, Holland and her two companies – Brunswick Aquaculture Limited and Alder Seafood Limited – name more than 100 people whose vehicles they say were parked by rivers in the spring of 2023, netting without permission as the delicate eels pushed into the estuaries from the sea, part of a long, yearly migration.

The Court of Appeal, New Brunswick’s highest court, recently ruled in her favour when she sought to have the province’s registrar of motor vehicles turn over the names of the people who owned the vehicles at the centre of the controversy.

The claim says that when Holland and her workers tried to intervene, some of the “unauthorized fishers,” who were wearing scarves or bandanas to conceal their faces, “arrogantly, loudly, in foul language claimed they were exercising their aboriginal rights to fish what, when, where and how they chose.”

None of the allegations have been tested in court.

The Wolastoqey Nation rejected the claim outright and released a statement from the six chiefs, who include Patricia Bernard of Matawaskiye (Madawaska Maliseet First Nation), Ross Perley of Neqotkuk (Tobique), Timothy Paul of Wotstak (Woodstock), Gabriel Atwin of Bilijk (Kingsclear), Allan Polchies Jr. of Sitansisk (St. Mary’s) and Shelley Sabattis, the chief of Welamukotok (Oromocto).

“We are reviewing the latest court filing from Mary Ann Holland with our legal team and intend to vigorously defend these allegations and claims. This new lawsuit is wholly without merit and a waste of public resources and the time of our leadership which should be focused on addressing the serious needs of our First Nations.”

The chiefs said the new claim recycled many of the previous allegations that were made in an existing litigation, which the Wolastoqey First Nations have been moving to strike out entirely for almost two years.

“The claim paints a false narrative. Holland and her legal representative appear to be attempting to harass and intimidate the Wolastoqey leadership with these ridiculous and frivolous allegations.”

Holland’s claim makes a specific charge against Sabattis, Oromocto’s chief, accusing her of owning one of the many vehicles that drove poachers to the rivers on April 7 and 11, 2023. 

In their response, the chiefs did not address this specific allegation when Brunswick News asked about it. The claim states that the registered owners of the dozens of vehicles in question “knew or should have known that the vehicles were being used with their consent for unauthorized fishing.”

Holland’s husband, Philip, pioneered the business in 1988 by developing the fishery and overseas markets in Asia, where baby eels are raised in tanks to adulthood, then slaughtered for several popular dishes. When he passed away in 2003, Mary Ann Holland became the sole owner of the family firm.

She says in her claim that her family “risked much time, effort, and money buying land, buildings, equipment and created a network of fishers, suppliers and buyers to develop the elver fishery with conservation always in mind.”

She said because of her family’s efforts, the fishery has created significant income, not just for them, but also their Canadian employees and suppliers.

All that business, she said, is in jeopardy because of the hostile actions of the Wolastoqey chiefs.

The court document mentions that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans provided the Wolastoqey with communal licence for elvers on the St. John River, taking away about 14 per cent of the annual allowable catch from other commercial fishers such as Holland in recent years. 

The total allowable catch had been as high as 9,960 kilograms in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, worth as much as $50 million.

Holland claims that in the spirit of reconciliation, she tried to help Indigenous leaders develop their fishery, even though First Nations didn’t traditionally harvest baby eels, providing advice directly to them and inviting them to visit her commercial operations in Pennfield, in southwestern New Brunswick, in 2015.

She alleges that spirit of co-operation ended when the chiefs became dissatisfied with the amount of eels allocated to their communities and “conspired among themselves and planned the commission of illegal acts by extending their First Nation fishing activities to watercourses licensed to Holland.”

Contacted by Brunswick News, Holland declined to comment on her lawsuit.

By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 15, 2024 at 08:17

This item reprinted with permission from   The Daily Gleaner   Fredericton, New Brunswick

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