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Federal Politics

Heiltsuk Will Fight to Protect Central Coast Herring

Once the lifeblood of Heiltsuk diets, herring now reduced to a rare 'treat.'

Judith Sayers 31 Mar

Judith Sayers (Kekinusuqs) is from the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni, B.C., and a lawyer. She also holds an honorary Doctor of Laws from Queen's University. She is currently serving her first term as an elected member of the First Nations Summit's political executive.

She is a member of the Tyee National Pool, made possible by generous contributions by readers who pledge monthly amounts as Tyee Builders.

The battle over herring is ramping up, and all eyes are on the central coast as Heiltsuk children, elders, men and women stand together as warriors defending what is theirs. 

In an assertion of their right to manage their herring resources, the Heiltsuk Nation has occupied a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) field office on Denny Island, near Bella Bella, to convey its opposition to the opening of the herring-roe fishery Tuesday morning. Heiltsuk are demanding that the fishery does not proceed, but the DFO is intent on carrying out the fishery despite Heiltsuk resistance.

Heiltsuk will continue to stand strong for their stewardship of the resources, their rights and the survival of their herring stocks. The Heiltsuk won't stand alone. Other First Nations and supporters will hold rallies and protests and the issue will escalate. 

Herring and herring-roe are an important mainstay of the Heiltsuk diet and way of life. Their aboriginal rights include the right to the herring fishery and to gather herring-roe.

Herring-roe is an important food source for many coastal First Nations. Many years ago, it was in great abundance for coastal First Nations. Nets were filled to overflowing. The ocean would turn milky all along the coast, signalling spawning grounds where Heiltsuk used kelp to gather herring roe. The roe was inches thick on the kelp, providing delicious food for the entire Nation. There was never a concern for lack of stocks. 

Now, overfishing and warming ocean temperatures are affecting the quality and quantity of herring stocks. What was once the lifeblood of Heiltsuk diets has become more of "a treat." 

The Heiltsuk are working to have their stocks returned to the levels they once were. They know if there is a herring fishery this year, their stocks will be in jeopardy. This must be a year of conservation.

Heiltsuk fishermen have been out on the waters since time immemorial. They're experts in knowing where the runs go and where they spawn. They know the signs when the herring are to arrive and how long they stay. This is sometimes referred to as traditional ecological knowledge. The Heiltsuk are very concerned about the small run sizes and the actual size of the herring. They say the runs need to rebuild. They do not want commercial fisheries to proceed, because they know this could put future herring stocks at risk. They have been communicating this information to DFO to no avail.

Traditional knowledge cast aside

DFO choses to rely on its scientific modelling of run sizes and feels that a commercial opening is warranted. Last week, it opened a commercial herring fishery without letting the Heiltsuk know. Commercial boats took an estimated 625 metric tonnes during a two-day seine fishery.

This was a very big mistake that puts them at odds with the Heiltsuk.

The Heiltsuk feel that their concerns are not being addressed. They see that their knowledge of the herring is being cast aside in favour of DFO scientists. First Nations know that DFO has not been the best manager of fisheries, and the collapse of her cod fishery on the east coast is a good example of that. Their knowledge must be part of the management of the herring fishery.

What choices do the Heiltsuk have to protect the herring fishery? They could go to court and get an injunction, but that costs a lot of time and money. 

They can continue to try and meet with government officials, but Monday's cancellation of a meeting with Sue Farlinger, the DFO's regional director general, shows that the government is not interested in meeting.

They have already tried to appeal to Jimmy Pattison, who owns a Vancouver fish processing plant and owns commercial fishing licences and boats in B.C. They held a demonstration at Pattison's fish plant last week that has not been successful so far. They can get people to boycott and picket where the herring is sold. Pattison sells his catch to Overwaitea and Save on Foods, to name a few. 

Or they can do as they are doing now: occupy the DFO offices and have their supporters hold rallies in support. Once again, First Nations are called into conflict because the Canadian government's paternalistic, unilateral approach leaves them no other choice. The Canadian government is motivated by conflict without any regard for aboriginal rights and title. Unlike Canada, First Nations are motivated by peace and dialogue as First Nations. But when they need to, they fight to protect their right to resources.

In B.C., First Nations are in a post Tsilhqot'in era, where management of the resources is part of their title and rights. The spawning of the herring signals the Heiltsuk's New Year and harvesting cycle -- life on the coast. The Heiltsuk will fight to ensure for their new year, for life on the coast for this year, and for many generations to come, access to healthy herring stocks.  [Tyee]

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