NAIROBI – In eastern Canada, three Mi’gmaq communities are establishing themselves in the commercial fisheries of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. But they already have one eye on changes affecting many fisheries around the world.

Food, ritual, social functions, commerce – life for the the Mi’gmaq (the name means people of the sea) and their near neighbours, the Maliseet (people of the river), has been drawn from the Atlantic Ocean and the Saint Lawrence River for longer than anyone can remember. Since the arrival of Europeans 400 years ago, the three communities of Gespeg, Gesgapegiag, and Viger have suffered a steady loss of access to their marine resources.

But thirty years ago, the Sparrow decision of Canada’s Supreme Court began to reverse this tide. “The 1990 Sparrow decision recognised the right of indigenous people to fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes,” explained Catherine Lambert Koizumi, executive director of the Mi’gmaq Maliseet Aboriginal Fisheries Management (MMAFMA). “This right was given priority over all competing claims except for conservation.”

Koizumi was speaking at a side  event being held alongside the inaugural Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, which opened in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Monday.

A later ruling conceded First Nations’ right under treaties signed in 1760 to fish commercially in support of a moderate livelihood. Together, these rulings led to a raft of Canadian government policy decisions that have allowed the Mi’gmaq and Maliseet to get fishing licences, boats, and equipment as well as paid for training for crew and captains.

It’s also the source of funding that allowed the establishment of the MMAFMA, which has played a vital role in the communities’ regaining access to their fisheries.

“The fisheries and training for community members has coincided with a drop in unemployment – around 100 people from each community have jobs in the fishery,” said Lambert. “Fishing is a source of pride. And profits from the commercial fisheries are sometimes quite a lot – and this goes back into economic, health and community projects.”

This is an unusual story in a context in which stocks of all species are declining (save lobster, which for the moment are prospering in the warmer waters caused by climate change.)

Where are allocations of quotas for new entrants in the fisheries coming from? Canada’s Department of Fisheries has moved to purchase quotas from existing fishers as they reach retirement age, transferring allocations to indigenous operators. (Some of the retiring captains have extended their time at sea to serve as mentors to the new crews.)

“It’s a double issue – for us as indigenous people, we didn’t have access to fisheries, so we are increasing employment, but not the total number of fishers, said Lambert. “But we are also training more scientists, we are also focusing on conservation projects and other things for livelihoods.”

The problem of creating new livelihoods linked to the sea despite declining or degraded marine resources is one found around the world. Expanding fisheries is is only possible where more fish can be caught sustainably. The key is diversifying and exploring options to add value locally. The MMAFMA has set up an advisory committee to consider options to diversify. The association is experimenting with growing kelp at one site, and looking into moving up the value chain into processing marine products.