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Federal plan for 'geoduck' fishing pushes First Nation to threaten blockade

A First Nation threatening to block all fisheries in a large portion of the Strait of Georgia said it's only doing so as a last resort to fight back against the federal government's monopoly on resource management in the nation's traditional waters.

Stz'uminus chief John Elliott said the threat was the culmination of decades of frustrations with what he sees as unsustainable resource management by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which he added favours commercial fishermen over First Nations.

The release of DFO's draft geoduck management plan was the tipping point for the Stz'uminus, who would no longer stand by idly, said Elliott. "We have nothing to lose anymore, because DFO's management plans and policies don't put nations in any position to be successful in any of their territories."

The nation had applied for the rights to grow and harvest geoduck on 100 hectares in waters next to their reserve, but DFO's plan granted them just five hectares, effectively barring any hopes of the nation gaining a significant stake in the lucrative geoduck fishery, he said.

Geoduck is a species of gigantic saltwater clams with a retail price of up to $30 a pound on the Asian market, where they're highly sought-after due to their supposed aphrodisiacal attributes.

The Vancouver Island nation wants a greater part in the fisheries in their traditional waters, Elliott said.

To force a policy change within DFO, the Stz'uminus now threaten to block all commercial fisheries in their waters, an area stretching from Active Pass to Gabriola Island.

So far there have been no confrontations on the water, but the contested area was opened to commercial prawn fisheries yesterday and Elliott said that prawn fishermen "would come in here at their own risk." The Stz'uminus council will meet Monday to decide the next course of action.

Elliott stresses that the nation's quarrel is with DFO alone, not commercial and sports fishermen. "They're just caught in the middle of all this," he said.

Sophie Doucet, spokesperson for Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, said that "officials are engaged in ongoing discussions with Stz'uminus to understand their concerns and interest."

According to Elliott, there's been one phone call so far between him and a local DFO representative. The Stz'uminus First Nation has been down this road before, said Elliott, who has little faith in DFO's desire to negotiate. "Until we get someone at the table who will make changes to policy, we're not ready to meet," he said.

Kristian Secher is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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