Tensions were high in Bella Bella last week over a contested commercial herring fishery

Controversial herring fishery on Central Coast closed after protests, occupation

Members of the Heiltsuk Nation did not give up their fight over what they called an “unsustainable kill-fishery” of herring

Members of the Heiltsuk Nation did not give up their fight over what they called an “unsustainable kill-fishery” of herring located in their traditional territory.

Emotions were at an all-time high early last week when Heiltsuk members took the unprecedented step of occupying the DFO office located on Denny Island, near Bella Bella on Sunday, March 30. Supporting protests sprung up in Vancouver, the Island, and Bella Coola in the following days.

Late last week, the Heiltsuk emerged from the DFO offices on Denny Island victorious, as officials confirmed that Area 7 would be closed.

“We did it!” declared Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett to a jubilant crowd at the fisheries office near Bella Bella, as the herring gillnet fleet departed the central coast empty. “This was our no-go zone,” said Slett, holding up a map of Area 7 in Heiltsuk territory, “and nobody went there.”

After initially declining an invitation to meet the Heiltsuk, DFO’s senior B.C. manager Sue Farlinger emerged after three hours of talks with leaders on Denny Island last Tuesday, saying she needed to check with Ottawa whether the fishery would close or remain open.

“The commercial herring roe fishery all of the Central Coast Management Area (Areas 6, 7, 8) has concluded,” DFO spokesperson Bate wrote in an email.

The herring fishery has been a contentious and divisive fishery on the coast. Several areas have been closed in recent years due to low stocks, and DFO’s plans to open the Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii fisheries this year were vehemently opposed by the resident Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, the Haida, and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union.

The Haida won an injunction in early March to stop the fishery in their area. The opening went ahead on Vancouver Island, but no herring were to be found. The Central Coast (Area 7), which has been closed for several years, was re-opened to a seine fishery last month and the backlash was immediate. The Heiltsuk collided on the water with commercial fishers as they netted hundreds of tones of herring in just a few hours in a short seine-net opening.

The sustainability of the herring fishery has been a polarizing debate, with the DFO claiming that a “limited catch was sustainable” based on their updated 2015 science.

A test fishery in mid-March led to the opening in the highly contested Area 7: an area the Heiltsuk claim to be fragile and unhealthy. They have voluntarily suspended their commercial gillnet licenses, and stated that the DFO did not inform them of the opening until after the seine boats were already in the water.

Kelly Brown, who directs the Heiltsuk’s resource management department, says the industry took 680 tons out of the area with a recent seine fishery, and a gillnet fishery “would only add insult to injury.”

“We must put conservation first. We have voluntarily suspended our community-owned commercial gillnet herring licenses for this season to allow stocks to rebuild, but DFO and industry are unwilling to follow suit,” said Brown.

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union backed the Heiltsuk position, advising gillnet fishers not to fish the Central Coast.

“We recommended that gillnet herring fishers not fish in Area 7,” said Kim Olsen, President of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. “However, it is up to each individual fisher to make their own decisions.”

The way the DFO manages the herring fishery, and many others, has been called into question for its effectiveness. The department views and manages herring with a “mega-stock” approach.

This allows them to resume the fishery in places where it’s depressed by running a “test fishery,” from which they get estimates of a stock in that general region and decide how many fish can be safely harvested.

But this approach is facing some tough questions. Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries at the University of B.C.’s Fisheries Centre, says DFO may have it wrong. Pitcher is leading a three-year research project on herring stocks on northern B.C. waters, and he has found that herring behaviour is more localized, more similar to salmon, and that the “meta-population” approach to the species is no longer accepted as fact.

“It has been assumed that [herring] all mix together in what’s technically called a meta-population in which they all flow together from different spawning sites. The alternative, which we now think is probably supported by evidence, is that the latest DNA sequencing techniques suggest they do home to a particular area,” Dr. Pitcher said.

First Nations have long argued that stocks are localized and need to be managed locally and herring, it turns out, return to the place they were spawned, just as salmon do.

The United States does manage its herring stocks locally but DFO does not, and Dr. Pitcher is suggesting we follow suit. “Canada’s not up to date with the latest information,” he said.

The herring is an oily fish that is a staple of coastal First Nations diets. It is traditionally harvested by removing herring eggs from the kelp, called the “roe-on-kelp” method, which leaves the fish to spawn again. This practice continues today.

By contrast, the commercial herring roe fishery harvests the entire fish and freezes it whole, removing the roe later. The bulk of the roe is exported to Asia.

The community of Bella Bella maintains that the industrial fishery threatens their way of life. “We’re really concerned this fish will be fished to extinction,” said Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett on Monday. “Our community just can’t bear that risk.”

After DFO’s Regional Director, Sue Farlinger, flew into the community Monday to meet with Heiltsuk leaders “some headway” was made. Despite continued disagreement over Area 7, the two sides did reach agreements over improved stock assessments and mandatory cultural training for local DFO officers.

The DFO issued a statement claiming their science forecasts showed that herring abundance would support a commercial harvest while meeting conservation objectives. The purse seine fishery that occurred on March 22 netted 690 tons of an available 800 tons, but this fishery is now closed.

Gregory Thomas, chair of the Herring Industry Advisory Board, said commercial fishermen believe DFO’s stock assessments are valid.

“The First Nations … say there isn’t enough fish and that any commercial roe herring fishery will negatively impact their [native] fishery,” said Mr. Thomas. “The industry view is there’s a lot of science behind the current stock assessment and that that science has indicated there is a reasonable return of herring on the central coast – and certainly a fishable abundance.”

Mr. Thomas said it is difficult to calculate the economic impact of losing a fishing opportunity on the central coast, but it’s considerable. “The gill net target is 600 tonnes and as of this morning there has been no catch. That’s a significant amount of herring,” he said.

As the industry boats packed up to leave after nearly a week of waiting, the Heiltsuk celebrated their victory.

“It is confirmed. All commercial gill-netters are exiting Heiltsuk waters,” wrote Heiltsuk First Nation councillor Jess Housty late last Wednesday. “They will be escorted by Heiltsuk patrol boats and we will continue to occupy DFO until they have exited our waters.”

It was reported that the industry boats were headed north of Bella Bella to the community of Kitasoo, but that not much culminated from that effort.

“We have been fairly active patrolling the territory,” said Douglass Neasloss, Resource Stewardship Director for the Kitasoo Nation. “We closed Kitasoo Bay and are looking to manage other areas based on sustainable numbers.  It sounds like the fisherman have given up now and gone home.”

DFO has stated it “will continue to work closely with the Heiltsuk First Nation, other First Nations and industry representatives on herring management.”

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