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Court overrules DFO decision to reopen herring fisheries

A Federal Court judge has ruled in favour of the five B.C. First Nations' injunction against Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada's (DFO) proposal to reopen commercial herring roe fisheries on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The ruling came after it was revealed in court that Fisheries Minister Gail Shea went against the advice of her own scientists when she decided to reopen the west coast of Vancouver Island for commercial herring fisheries.

DFO's scientists recommended in a memorandum to the minister signed by David Bevan, the DFO's associate deputy minister, that the west coast of Vancouver Island, Central Coast, and Haida Gwaii remain closed for the 2014 fishing season, maintaining the commercial closure which has been in place since 2006.

The memorandum states that "while there is some indication that the three closed areas are showing signs that the stock is rebuilding, the Department would like to see more evidence of durable and sustained recovery before re-opening."

Herring stocks in the three areas have been on a long downward trend for the past 20 to 30 years, notes the memorandum, and while stocks have increased in recent years it is expected for herring levels to remain near the "cut off" where commercial fisheries are not sustainable.

The DFO's recommendations were given to the minister on Dec. 9, 2013. Two weeks later, on Dec. 23, the minister announced that the areas would be re-opened to commercial herring roe fisheries at a conservative harvest rate of 10 per cent.

The minister's decision was immediately opposed by Nuu-chah-nulth, Haida Gwaii, and Heiltsuk First Nations who united to send out an open letter urging commercial herring fishermen not to pick the areas around west coast Vancouver Island, Central Coast, and Haida Gwaii for their 2014 fisheries.

Five Nuu-chah-nulth nations subsequently filed an injunction against the DFO in which they claim their aboriginal territorial rights are being overstepped by the DFO's decision to reopen the commercial herring fisheries. This injunction has now been granted by the Federal Court.

During yesterday's House of Commons debate, the minister was asked by NDP MP Jean Crowder (Nanaimo-Cowichan) if the Federal Court's ruling would make the minister listen to First Nations and her department's own scientists and stop putting the herring fishery at risk.

"My decision to reopen the herring fishery in the three previously closed areas was based on the department's scientific advice. In fact, the stocks in question were more than 7,000 tonnes higher than what science required for reopening," replied the minister.

A spokesperson for the minister wrote in an email to The Tyee that the decision to re-open the herring fishery in the three areas was based on solid fisheries science.

"Recent stock forecasts have shown that herring stock abundance has increased above the commercial fishery cut-off point in these areas," the email states. "After extensive consultations with stakeholders it was decided to establish a 10 per cent target harvest rate."

The minister and DFO are currently reviewing the court's decision and declined to comment further. The judge's written ruling has not been made available yet.

Kristian Secher is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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