The untold story behind the central coast herring fishery fiasco
by Damien Gillis - Common Sense CanadianThis is the untold story behind one of the most heated standoffs over fish which the BC coast has ever witnessed – the recent clash between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Heiltsuk Nation over the central coast herring fishery.
After spending the better part of two weeks amid the conflict in Bella Bella and surrounding areas, I feel the convoluted affair – and its complex ecological, cultural and political implications – merits a deeper analysis.
On the surface, the reason the gillnet fleet left the central coast this past week, without the herring it had come for, is simple: There weren’t enough fish to sustain a commercial fishery – which is precisely what the local Heiltsuk Nation and independent scientists had been warning DFO all along. But don’t expect the hapless regulator to admit this obvious fact. Instead, it held onto the idea of a gillnet fishery to the bitter end.
Even after the fleet had pulled up stakes, DFO refused to bow to First Nations’ demands and formally close the fishery in Area 7. Only through emails to reporters much later did they finally acknowledge it was closed.
Caught on tape
A radio transmission from one gillnet captain to his counterparts, recorded by Pacific Wild – a conservation organization that has been documenting the central coast fishery – tells the tale. The conversation occurred on the herring grounds outside of Kitasu Bay, where the gillnetters had been granted an opening by DFO but simply couldn’t justify dropping their nets for a lack of fish. Here’s what the captain told his fellow fisherman:
It’s starting to cost everybody a bunch of money and if there’s no sizeable body of fish anywhere other than Higgings – I mean if you don’t see anything outside there, it ain’t gonna materialize out of nowhere now. You know, if there’s nothing sizeable then maybe we should all put our heads together and decide whether we want to continue this bullshit or pack it in.
And that is precisely what they wound up doing soon thereafter (East Higgins – in the Heiltsuk’s declared Area 7 no-go zone would not prove to have the herring necessary for a fishery, despite remaining on the table, according to DFO, right to the end of this saga). But the boats did not leave because DFO told them to – this is an important distinction. As [a radio] transmission reflects; they left because there was simply no point carrying on.
Seiners clear out fishery
Industry voices may counter that there were fish in a few places kept off-limits by DFO and First Nations, but that’s an unfair criticism. For a several week period, all of Area 8 and virtually all of areas 6 and 7 – with a few tiny exemptions ultimately made for traditional Heiltsuk and Kistasoo/Xaixais food fish spots, such as Kitasu Bay – were open for fishing. It is a sad commentary on the state of the herring fishery that its success hinges on a single bay.
The fact of the matter is the seine fleet that took approximately 680 tonnes in an unannounced fishery in Spiller Channel essentially hoovered up what few viable fish there were (herring need to be of a certain size – roughly 20-plus centimetres in length – in order for the roe to be worthwhile). Even the seiners couldn’t achieve their own quota. In the wake of that fishery, nothing was left for the gillnetters, not to mention the Heiltsuk’s traditional fishery, which will likely suffer too.
For years, the Heiltsuk, backed by independent scientists, had been warning DFO about the lack of abundant stocks – to no avail. And when the department opened the sneak fishery in Spiller on March 22, it set off a bitter conflict that led the Heiltsuk to occupy the fisheries office near Bella Bella one week later.
As the days passed, a pattern emerged: DFO assured media they were in “discussions” with the Heiltsuk, but conference call after conference call failed to yield a solution. DFO would not bend and close Area 7.
The “Doctrine of Priority”
Now, a word about the complex world of herring fisheries. There are multiple types of herring fisheries on the central coast, each with different implications for conservation and informed by a landmark Supreme Court case called the Gladstone Decision of 1996. What that case essentially found is that the Heiltsuk had been engaged in their own commercial herring fishery since before contact and therefore maintain those rights today. It also established a “doctrine of priority” which laid out the order in which fish should be allocated by DFO.
The first priority is conservation, followed by the aboriginal right to food, social and ceremonial fish (FSC), then an aboriginal commercial fishery, and finally, after all those needs have been satisfied – and only if the stocks are healthy enough to justify it – a non-aboriginal commercial fishery.
DFO ignores the courts
Those who would seek to racialize the issue do so out of ignorance. To suggest that the Heiltsuk occupation of the DFO office and vow to stop the gillnet fishery “by any means necessary” is somehow lawless behaviour is inherently hypocritical. The Heiltsuk position is in fact entirely in line with the laws and jurisprudence of Canada – it is DFO which disrespected these institutions.
The Gladstone Decision is very clear about the allocation of fishing rights. The Heiltsuk, based on the historical record and the Constitution Act have first dibs. That’s not a value judgment – it’s a fact. In applying wrong-headed forecasting models to the fishery and ignoring Heiltsuk rights, DFO pitted aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishermen against each other, then stood back and did nothing to rectify the mess of their own making.
A different kettle of fish
There’s also a big difference between the commercial seine and gillnet fisheries and the traditional way the Heiltsuk do their food and commercial fisheries. The non-aboriginal commercial fishery is a “kill fishery”. The target in all cases is the precious roe – not so much the fish itself, which is used for pet food, bait or fish farm feed. Both seiners and gillnets scoop up the whole herring just for the roe. At one time this held immense value in Japanese fish markets for sushi. But today, prices are a fraction of what they once were, as the market is sitting on a huge backlog of frozen roe.
By contrast, the Heiltsuk employ a technique called spawn on kelp (SOK) for their FSC and commercial fisheries. Heiltsuk fishermen and families attach kelp to long lines and buoys and set them amidst the herring spawn. Some of the billions of eggs lain by the small fish deposit on the kelp and are then harvested. Another more boutique method involves tying hemlock boughs off the shoreline into the water, where herring roe also collects (my personal favourite, with the added bouquet of the forest).
The big difference is that with the SOK fishery, the herring aren’t killed, and swim free to spawn another day – making this a more sustainable fishery amidst depleted stocks.
DFO’s fuzzy math
In a typical healthy year, central coast First Nations would be allocated around 1750 tonnes of herring, with the non-aboriginal commercial fishery receiving something on the same order. But if there aren’t enough fish, then the commercial fishery is supposed to be closed and the Heiltsuk may even see their own allocation pared back for conservation purposes. According to retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk, that’s precisely what should have happened this year.
Tanasichuk explained to me how DFO arbitrarily doubles its herring counts from the previous season, resulting in the over-allocation of fish:
The forecasting methodology that DFO uses now for central coast herring is actually quite flawed…DFO’s forecasts are likely twice as much as they should be.
Numbers set in stone
The Heiltsuk presented Dr. Tanasichuk’s alternate calculations to DFO in a last-ditch meeting with Regional Director General Sue Farlinger this past Tuesday, but to no avail. Another problem with the department’s forecasting is that it’s set in stone once determined in September for the following year’s fishery. There is no mechanism by which to adapt allocations based on in-season soundings and observations from the actual fishery as it’s happening. Typical bureaucratic nonsense.
Dr. Tanisichuk’s alternate modelling predicted just over 14,000 tonnes of herring on the central coast this year (10% of which are available for a fishery) – about half of DFO’s forecasting. And guess what? Based on averaging out in-season soundings, he appears to have been right on the money. But this meant nothing to DFO.
Better call Ottawa
Farlinger flew out to Bella Bella on March 30 for emergency meetings following the Heiltsuk seizure of the DFO office. By most accounts, she did her level best to advance the their concerns, securing agreements with the Heiltsuk to improved stock assessments and cultural training for local officers. But as for the big issue over closing Area 7, Farlinger maintained she did not have the authority to make a decision – which only compounded the Heiltsuk frustrations with the federal government.
“It is my intention to avoid at all costs a fishery in Area 7,” Farlinger told a gathering of upset Heiltsuk members outside the occupied fisheries office. Yet, she added:
I’m not in a position to unilaterally say, ‘No fishery will happen in Area 7.’
Instead, she told the community that she spent hours on the phone to her higher-ups in Ottawa, who plainly wouldn’t budge.
The incredible, shrinking DFO
In the end, as the gillnetters departed the central coast empty-handed, DFO would prefer that the public remained in the dark about what just happened up in Bella Bella.
And it shouldn’t. Herring are the building block of life on the BC coast. They need time to rebuild.
DFO should learn from this year’s herring fishery fiasco, start listening to scientists and working with the Heiltsuk to ensure a sustainable fishery for the future of herring and the ecosystems and coastal communities that depend on them.
Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.
More articles by Damien Gillis