B.C. First Nation says caught off guard by fishery closure
A joint planning process between the Heiltsuk Nation and Ottawa is on the rocks after Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray canceled the First Nation’s critical kelp spawning fishery late last year, officials said. Heiltsuk leaders.
They maintain that the decision, announced on Dec. 16, came without notice and after Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Heiltsuk agreed to a limited spawn-on-kelp fishery.
“The unilateral decision took more from us than the fishing,” Chief Councilor-elect Marilyn Slett said in a recent interview.
“The decision that was made and how [Ms. Murray] did, also removed this joint management process from under us.
Heiltsuk leaders are meeting this month to discuss possible next steps.
The Heiltsuk kelp spawn fishery – which involves harvesting herring roe, or roe, from kelp suspended in the ocean – typically accounts for sales of around $5-6 million per year, mostly to Japan , making it a small part of Canada’s total seafood and aquaculture exports, which were $8.7 billion last year.
But fishing is a big deal for the Heiltsuk, both economically and culturally. Tensions around the country’s joint management process highlight challenges for Ms Murray, whose mandate letter asks her to restore stocks while integrating indigenous knowledge into policy decisions.
Ms Murray’s staff said she was unavailable for an interview.
In an emailed statement, Ms Murray’s press secretary Claire Teichman said the minister was committed to conserving and protecting Pacific herring.
“Pacific herring are vital to the health of our ecosystem, and the stock is in a fragile state,” Ms. Teichman said, adding that “we need to do what we can to protect and regenerate this important forage species.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada considered First Nations input in its decision on harvest levels and is maintaining fishing for food, social and ceremonial purposes in all First Nations areas, she added.
The Heiltsuk, however, say their input was ignored, despite a joint management process that concluded a limited kelp spawn fishery could continue.
That process began with a compromise reached in 2015, after Heiltsuk members occupied the federal ministry’s office in Bella Bella, British Columbia, that year to protest the commercial herring fishery in the area.
Through this joint process, the Heiltsuk have pushed for a more conservative approach to stock estimates and higher conservation goals, said Heiltsuk Director of Fisheries Mike Reid.
Until late last year, that process, based on input from the Heiltsuk Fisheries and Research Department, had enabled a small spawning fishery on kelp, Reid said.
“There is nothing in this science that says our fishery would impact herring biomass or health,” he said.
Kelp spawning usually occurs in March and April, depending on when the fish arrive.
On December 16, Ms Murray announced that most commercial Pacific herring fisheries would be closed, citing risks to wild salmon, which depend on herring for food.
In a Dec. 17 email to Mr. Reid, provided to The Globe and Mail, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says he is “a bit at a loss for a lot of words…based on advice received yesterday.” The email goes on to discuss draft language for a regional fishing plan that will close the kelp spawn fishery, acknowledging that the draft language “is not an agreed-upon approach that is supported by the Heiltsuk.”
The main community of the Heiltsuk is Bella Bella, located on the central coast of British Columbia and accessible by boat or plane. The nation’s traditional territory covers approximately 35,500 square kilometers of land and sea.
Frank Brown, Heiltsuk hereditary chief and longtime fisherman, said kelp spawning can involve up to nearly 700 people – families tend to go out and harvest together – and is a major source of income for the community.
He argued that small-scale, low-impact fishing, such as harvesting Heiltsuk kelp spawn, could be part of a more sustainable fishing industry.
“We are moving through a time of enormous uncertainty,” Brown said, citing an ocean heat wave known as “the gout” and ocean acidification as two of many factors affecting ocean health.
“This is a place-based aboriginal fishery. It’s a model of how we can navigate, move forward in these uncertain times.
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