With commercial herring roe fisheries on B.C.'s central coast set to reopen at any moment, tension is rising between First Nations and the government, while fishermen remain caught in the middle.
In Bella Bella, the Heiltsuk Nation is preparing to block any attempts to catch herring by 20 commercial fishing vessels currently anchored in Shearwater, where they wait for fish to begin spawning.
The central coast has been closed to commercial herring fisheries since 2006, when the stock fell below levels acceptable to the government. While officials from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada claim herring levels have stabilized, the Heiltsuk maintain that levels are still too low. If commercial fishing returns in the area, the nation fears the entire stock could collapse.
"We have a responsibility to protect our herring stocks," said Heiltsuk chief councillor Marilyn Slett. When the fisheries open, some 40 boats with 90 Heiltsuk onboard will take to the water to disrupt the fishing, she vowed, adding that could happen any time now.
Twenty RCMP officers have descended on Denny Island close to Bella Bella to ensure no violence erupts. Slett said the added presence of law enforcement is welcome, as everyone's safety during a potential blockade is paramount.
Three nations move to block openings
The Heiltsuk have fought the reopening since December 2013, when Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced her decision to reopen central coast operations, along with those on the west coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. All three areas have been closed for years, after herring levels dropped below the 25 per cent cut-off where commercial fishing is considered no longer sustainable.
The central coast is the last region slated for fisheries reopening. The Nuu-chah-nulth on the west coast of Vancouver Island successfully blocked the minister's decision by obtaining a federal court injunction in late February, and on March 17 the Haida Nation reached an agreement with industry in which both parties would stop fishing in 2014.
None of these options has worked for the Heiltsuk, said Slett, so they now have no choice but to physically block the reopening.
At the heart of the conflict is DFO's assessment of the herring stock. All three First Nations say it is wrong, but the department and Minister Shea remain adamant the assessment is "backed by solid fisheries science," as one ministry official told The Tyee.
Slett and her researchers at the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department disagree.
Their concern is backed by an internal DFO document which shows Minister Shea's decision to reopen the fisheries went against her own scientists' advice. They recommended the minister maintain closures in all three areas.
Slett described this as gross mismanagement of the government's duty to manage its fisheries. "It's not acceptable," she said.
Proposed harvest 'sustainable': industry
That's not how Greg Thomas, chairman of the Herring Industry Advisory Board, a group of herring fishermen and processor representatives, sees it. He said DFO's assessment indicates that herring stocks have been rebuilding and that there's no reason to be concerned about collapses.
A condition for the reopening was that commercial fishermen be allowed a conservative 10 per cent harvest rate. On the central coast, that amounts to 750 tonnes of herring, much less than the 1,100 tonnes allocated to First Nations, Thomas said.
"There's a significant opportunity for commercial fisheries here," he said, questioning why the Heiltsuk oppose commercial fishery activity while they plan to proceed with their own fisheries.
Slett said that the First Nations' traditional spawn-on-kelp fishery is much less invasive to the herring. Trees are lowered into open ponds, where captured herring then spawn on the trees. After a few weeks, the trees are raised up and the roe collected -- without killing the herring, she said -- as opposed to commercial fishing, where the roe is cut out of the herring and the carcasses processed for other purposes.
Thomas doesn't buy that comparison. He said no matter how the roe is removed, it still removes fish from the fishery. While commercial fishing does kill off all captured fish, spawn-on-kelp operations kill fish as well, he said, adding that in this case it has all been allocated for by DFO. "It's well within the bounds of sustainable fishing."
Federal science outdated: UBC scientist
Government's science is perhaps not as solid as the minister and industry might believe, said Professor Tony Pitcher, founding director of the Fisheries Centre at the University of British Columbia.
Pitcher said DFO is using an old-fashioned assessment that fails to consider the role of herring in the ecosystem. Species like humpback whales and salmon depend on herring, and in reality the current threshold should be set much higher to prevent collapse of the stock and ultimately the entire ecosystem, he said.
"You can't willingly pretend that these other roles of herring don't exist," said Pitcher, "but that's what DFO is doing at the moment."
Research over the past decade has pointed to the presence of local stocks, which DFO also overlooks in its assessment, said Pitcher. Instead, the department considers entire regions such as the central coast to host one or two major stocks -- but really, it should be closer to 30 or maybe 40 smaller, local stocks that return to spawn in the same areas, like that of Bella Bella, each year.
"So if you have a fishery in a local area, it could deplete that local stock completely," said Pitcher. And again, he said, if herring disappears from an area, it could potentially harm all other species dependent on the fish.
The Tyee was denied a request to speak with DFO scientists.
Pitcher takes issue with the minister not listening to her own advisors, but said there are other problems as well.
"Even if there were no ecological issues here -- and there are," he said, "when a bunch of First Nations are saying they don't want this opened, you're unwise not to listen, aren't you?"
Fishers trapped in the middle
Kim Olsen, president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union, B.C.'s largest union representing fisheries workers, is frustrated that the conflict has escalated to this point.
He said most commercial fishermen would probably prefer not to be on the central coast right now, with the threat of conflict looming, but they don't have a choice. "Most of these guys are cash-strapped, so they have no alternative but to try and fish."
Some of the fishermen currently in the area are among the 50 who lost out on their license fees and catch revenue when the west coast of Vancouver Island was closed to fishing in February, he said. "They have to try and recoup some of their losses."
Olsen personally blames the federal fisheries department. "They told us we could go fish, and now we're caught between a rock and a hard place," he said, adding that DFO should compensate fishermen for their losses.
A ministry official wrote via email that "no consideration is being given to compensation at this time."
'We need to work together'
Thomas said not only fishermen will be losing out if the Heiltsuk block the fisheries -- it will have a domino effect in terms of economic losses.
Anyone working on the shore, unloading and processing herring will find themselves without a job at a time of year when there's not much else going on, said Thomas, adding that roe is a valuable export product. Harvests from the central coast alone would bring in millions of dollars, he said.
Thomas said the Herring Industry Advisory Board has met with the Heiltsuk on occasion, but that the nation "has not provided the industry with a lot of latitude."
"They persist with the view that the area can only be for them," he said. "That makes it difficult to come to an agreement."
In his opinion, the long term goals of the First Nations and the industry are not that far apart; both parties want a sustainable fishery, and the only disagreement seems to be over the definition of sustainable this year, with industry siding with the government's recommendations.
The discussion should not be about whether the fisheries should be opened or not; it should be about how all parties can find a compromise so no one loses out, said Thomas.
"Neither the First Nations or the industry will go away," he said. "We need to work together."
'This didn't have to happen'
Chief Slett said that Heiltsuk Nation is in no way opposed to commercial fishing, but that it can't support a fishery that isn't viable.
"We're not trying to stop people from making a living," she said. "But we need to manage things in a way so we'll have a resource that will sustain everyone into the future."
Heiltsuk Nation invited the Herring Industry Advisory Board to a meeting on 25 March but no one from industry showed, said Slett. “There really hasn’t been enough dialogue.”
Since the reopening was announced in December, Slett has sent seven letters to Minister Shea, urging her to revoke her decision. Shea responded once, repeating that her decision was based on sound science.
Meanwhile, the Heiltsuk are ready to take their protest out on the water. "There are strong-willed people in the community that will do everything within their power to protect the herring stocks," Slett said.
"This didn't have to happen -- this is Minister Shea's responsibility," she said. "Everything that happens now is because of her."