Heiltsuk Nation Chief Marilyn Slett said her community is deeply disappointed by the decision of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to close the commercial harvest of herring spawn on kelp (SOK).
“We are extremely troubled by this,” Slett told Black Press Media Thursday, Feb. 17. “We had a bilateral table with DFO where we discuss and collaboratively come to agreements around how the herring fishery will be undertaken on the Central Coast. This definitely caught us by surprise.”
In December 2021, Joyce Murray, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard hinted at the closure when she announced a ‘more cautious’ approach to Pacific herring management, citing intensified risks to wild salmon, for which herring is an important food source.
“When managing our fisheries, we have to consider the local fish harvesters and the long-term health of the entire ecosystem. This is an extraordinary time, when our Pacific Coast is reeling from natural disasters, and the serious damage they have caused to the environment and our iconic Pacific salmon. Herring are vital to the health of our ecosystem, and the stocks are in a fragile state. We must do what we can to protect and regenerate this important forage species,” the minister noted in a news release.
Slett said the nation was notified last week by DFO the SOK harvest can only be for First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries.
There have been closures in the past, for rebuilding herring stocks, and Slett said as stewards of their own resources, the Heiltsuk recognize that sustainability is important.
“We have emphasized the practice of our fishery is a non-kill fishery. It is a very sustainable fishery and not like the commercial fishery which takes the whole fish. There are distinct differences.”
DFO noted most commercial fisheries for Pacific herring will be closed, and limited to First Nations food, social and ceremonial fisheries, in an effort to address declining salmon stocks.
“This decision was taken with the aim of providing sustainable fishing opportunities and increasing stock abundance, to the benefit of the entire ecosystem. This approach extends the cautious approaches taken in recent years, with additional limits on harvest, and considers the decline of wild Pacific salmon, and the impacts of the recent floods and landslides on fish habitats in British Columbia.”
Black Press Media has reached out to DFO for further comment.
Slett said the SOK fishery normally takes place about a month from now and is a short one – anywhere from a week to a couple of weeks or runs over a month.
The length of the fishery does vary and can involve anywhere from 600 to 750 people from her community.
“There are crews, boat crews, individuals that participate and we have a fish processing plant.”
“It’s a substantial fishery for our community. It’s a main economic driver here and it has been a difficult time certainly through the pandemic. Other fisheries are collapsing and this is one that is sustainable.”
Markets extend overseas as SOK is considered a delicacy for Japanese businesses.
While she is not a SOK harvester herself, the chief enjoys the fruits of her brother’s and uncles’ labours.
“My brother will usually go out and share some food harvest with our family.”
Her favourite way to eat it is quickly fried in garlic butter.
“Yah, it’s really good. For us it’s been a cornerstone in our diet for millennia. It’s also one of our primary food sources. It is something people will harvest and share in our feasts and potlatches. People will take it right out of the water and eat it as they are harvesting.”
The Heiltsuk Tribal Council is consulting with Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs and community members to decide how to respond to the closure.
“That internal dialogue is happening right now,” Slett said.