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Geoduck dispute threatens fisherman safety, harvesters say

A First Nation's plan to block all commercial fisheries in their territorial waters in the Strait of Georgia risks the safety of commercial geoduck fishermen, said Michelle James, executive director of Underwater Harvesters Association (UHA), a group of 55 licence holders for geoduck and horse clam fisheries in British Columbia.

"This is a dive fishery so if they come out in their boats it could be very dangerous," she said, citing safety regulations that stipulate all vessels to keep a minimum 100 metres distance to divers with surface supplied air. "But when they talk about bringing vessels close in and block the fisheries, it could be fatal."

James said she was surprised when Stz'uminus Chief John Elliott sent a letter to UHA in late April, specifying the band’s blockade plans.

The letter was about Stz'uminus' belief in title rights and their right to have access to geoduck, she said. "But the reality is they already have access to geoduck and they have already fished their quota this year."

Stz’uminus holds a licence to harvest 6,000 pounds of geoduck each year. Blocking fisheries in their area will make it difficult for other license holders to reach their quotas -- of which 11 are First Nations with the rights to harvest 60,000 pounds, said James. In total, a catch quota of 390,000 pounds are at stake, amounting to millions of dollars.

Geoducks are a highly-lucrative species of gigantic saltwater clams that sell for a retail price of up to $30 a pound. They’re mostly exported to Asian markets were they are sought-after due to their supposed aphrodisiac attributes.

The east Vancouver Island band blames the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for poor management of fishery resources in traditional Stz'uminus territory. "DFO continues to favour existing commercial monopolies and continues to inadequately consult with Aboriginal groups when enacting policy," the letter reads.

It's not the first time that Stz'uminus go up against the commercial geoduck harvesters. In 2010 the band took to the waters to prevent geoduck fisheries from taking place.

Stz'uminus has previously applied to the DFO for the rights to harvest geoduck on a 100-hectare area around their reserve but were only granted a small area of five hectares.

In his letter to UHA chief Elliott pressed that the quarrel was not with commercial fishermen but a last resort to force policy change. "Our fight is with the DFO alone, and our hope is to compel them to follow Canadian law when enacting new policy and change their existing policies surrounding aboriginal access accordingly," he wrote.

James said she remains hopeful that Stz'uminus will allow its fellow UHA members to harvest geoducks when the area opens up to commercial fisheries. She doesn't know what will happen if the band refuses entry but said that "no one should put themselves in danger."

The Tyee reached out to Stz'uminus Nation and the DFO who were both unable to comment before publication.

Kristian Secher is completing a practicum at the Tyee.

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Stz’uminus First Nation as a member of the Underwater Harvester's Association. This is not correct and the article has been amended to reflect this.

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