The Kitasoo/Xaixais are celebrating their victory in blocking the opening of a commercial herring fishery in their territory. In response to the decision of Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea’s decision to re-open the Central Coast herring fishery, including areas in Kitasoo/Xaixais and Heiltsuk traditional territory, the Kitasoo/Xaixais Heriditary Chiefs led a protest blocking commercial fishing boats from accessing Kitasu Bay.
In a statement released Monday, Kitasoo/Xaixais Stewardship Director Doug Nealoss and the First Nation’s elected and hereditary chiefs declared that the bay had been closed to fishing, noting that, “The success of our fishery relies on the predictable spawning patterns which we have learned, and sufficient abundance of herring, which we have protected in Kitasu Bay since time immemorial.”
Earlier this week, DFO officials had attempted to negotiate access for the commercial fishing boats, but the request was denied by Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation elected Chief Clark Robinson Sr. It now appears that the department will not be pursuing further negotiations at this time.
Shea is being blamed for the conflict after an internal memo revealed she overruled recommendations of the scientists in her own department. The memorandum to the minister, written by the federal herring co-ordinator in Vancouver, and signed by David Bevan, the DFO’s associate deputy minister, was based on recommendations of scientists and B.C. herring managers, but ultimately rejected by Shea.
The memo detailed three main considerations in reopening the fishery, including ‘biological status of the stocks, manageability of the fisheries and legal risk around First Nation rights recognition.’
The memo also stated that ‘consultations with industry stakeholders and First Nations on the management plan for the 2013/2014 season are polarized. First Nations support continued commercial closures, stating there is a need to define rebuilding objectives and review harvest rules before opening these areas.’
The department concludes the memo by recommending that they ‘maintain a closure for the three areas for the 2014 fishing season.’
However, Shea ignored the recommendation and in a hand-printed note alongside her signature, she wrote, “The minister agrees to an opening at a conservative 10-per-cent harvest rate for the 2014 fishing season.”
Out in Bella Bella, the Heiltsuk are not backing down on their assertion that the fishery remains closed in their territory also.
The Heiltsuk Tribal Council issued a press release March 19 stating that they intended to meet with commercial fishers to encourage them to honour the ban and ask them support the rebuilding efforts.
Both the Heiltsuk and the Kitasoo/Xaixais are planning to go ahead with their yearly ‘spawn on kelp’ herring fishery, in which they collect herring eggs from the kelp beds. They may not, however, have much left if the commercial fishery proceeds first.
“Industry has to fish before the fish spawn. So they are getting the first crack at it and what’s left for us is more uncertainty,” said Reg Moody, a councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation.
The DFO uses the health of herring stocks in the region to establish a ‘commercial cutoff’ for that region. When stocks exceed the cutoff, commercial fishing is allowed at rates as high as 20 per cent of the biomass. The DFO memo indicated that ‘the commercial sector points to these stocks being above the ‘cutoff’ and recommends commercial roe herring and Spawn on Kelp (SOK) fisheries with reduced harvest rates.’
However, the DFO did not have time to complete the required assessments for 2014 and therefore recommended keeping the ban until the following year.
The Heiltsuk are frustrated with the DFO’s apparent inability to follow the advice of its own advisors, and cite the fact that groups such as the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union are advising gillnet fishers not to fish the Central Coast.
“We have attempted to work with government and others to conserve herring stocks,” said Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt. “But for far too long catch levels were too high, fleets became increasingly efficient, and government officials were reluctant to take painful but necessary steps to sustain and rebuild populations.”
Chief Marilyn Slett said that Heiltsuk Nation is in no way opposed to commercial fishing, but that it can’t support a fishery that isn’t viable.
“We’re not trying to stop people from making a living,” she said. “But we need to manage things in a way so we’ll have a resource that will sustain everyone into the future.”