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First Nations say relationship with DFO must change to create sustainable fishery

Department of Fisheries and Oceans attitudes about aboriginal fishing rights is an obstacle to sustainable management of the Fraser River fishery, First Nations representatives said today at the Cohen Commission.

On the second day of proceedings into the 2009 sockeye disappearance, First Nations representatives said they tend ignore DFO rules because DFO doesn't recognize their commercial fishing rights or let First Nations help manage the fishery.

Robert Janes, representing the Western Central Coast Salish, stressed that the DFO generally accepts the fishing rights of aboriginals for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) purposes, but doesn't consider their commercial rights.

Rights of First Nations with regards to FSC were officially recognized by DFO in 1992, in response to the landmark Supreme Court of Canada Sparrow decision. The Sparrow decision, made in 1990, said that First Nations' rights to fish take priority. According to DFO's website, FSC fisheries now have priority over all other fisheries:

"Today, FSC fisheries have priority over all other fisheries. Harvest opportunities are developed through consultation with First Nation communities, and then authorized via a Communal Licence issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The individual Band or Tribal Council in turn issues designations to individual members, designating them to fish for the group."

The rights of aboriginals to commercial fisheries are not as easily accepted by DFO. Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, which have territory on the west coast of Vancouver island, had to file a writ of summons against the province and the federal government in 2003 after treaty negotiations that had been going on for years broke down. Only last year did the Supreme Court of British Columbia grant them the right to harvest and sell species of fish found within their territories.

"But you can't separate out one fishery to the other," says Robert Janes. "It creates a sense that their rights are not recognized as legal rights."

"As a result, many First Nations decide not to comply with DFO," Janes told the commission. This has led to conflicts between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people with respect to management of those rights."

In the summer of 2009, young Chief Willie Charlie of the Chehalis Indian Band was shot in the face with a pellet gun during an altercation with sports fishers on the Fraser River.

But initiatives -- like videos about "River Manners" -- are also put in place by First Nations and fishermen to avoid confrontations like these.

Frustration with the DFO has also been expressed by Stó:lō representative Tim Dixon: "My clients don't want to be told by DFO how many fish they can catch, they want to decide with DFO."

Parties standing at the commission were presenting their perspectives on the aboriginal and treaty rights underlying the Fraser River sockeye salmon fishery today.

Although not the main purpose of the commission, treaty rights are part of the system in place to manage salmon and might be subject to recommendations by Commissioner Cohen to improve the future sustainability of the sockeye salmon fishery in the Fraser River.

The commission is taking a break tomorrow. It will resume its activities on Thursday morning.

Francis Plourde is a freelance Vancouver writer and an occasional contributor to The Tyee.

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