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Nuu-chah-nulth Lose Bid to Stop Commercial Fishing of Dwindling Herring Stocks

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations have lost this year's court battle to keep large-scale commercial fishing from decimating herring stocks.

A plan to stop the commercial herring fishery off the west coast of Vancouver Island this year has failed.

Five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations had appealed to a federal court to stop the fishery because they believe the stocks are in danger of collapse. Nuu-chah-nulth biologists, elders and commercial fishermen told the court that herring stocks have been low for the past decade, and requests for a fishing moratorium made to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has fallen on deaf ears.

“Nuu-chah-nulth harvesters set trees up and down the west coast of Vancouver Island last year to try to find enough herring to meet our food and ceremonial needs,” Debra Foxcroft, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said in a statement, referencing their traditional way of harvesting the roe. “Their trees came up empty or with not enough egg layers to harvest. Nuu-chah-nulth Chiefs heard this information, reviewed the assessment information from DFO, and decided last fall that there was not enough herring on the west coast for commercial herring fisheries in 2015.”

For thousands of years, Nuu-chah-nulth harvesters have submerged trees in active herring spawns or areas where herring spawn year after year. When herring are abundant, the female herring lay their eggs 8 –12 layers thick on the tree branches. The trees are raised after the herring spawn, the eggs peeled from the branches, and the delicacy savored by Nuu-chah-nulth.

“I haven’t had a good harvest of herring eggs since 2004,” said Larry Johnson, an experienced harvester from Huu-ay-aht First Nation in Barkley Sound.

It goes beyond local stocks, too. Herring populations are dropping worldwide, and it is dragging down the food chain among some species, according to a recent report in National Geographic.

The west coast of Vancouver Island has been closed to commercial roe herring fisheries since 2005. Mr. Johnson gave evidence in the Federal Court proceeding, along with other Nuu-chah-nulth harvesters, but the judge did not mention their evidence in ruling against the injunction application. Nor did the judgment address the fact that Nuu-chah-nulth have been deprived of their priority food and ceremonial harvests for many years.

An injunction was granted by the same court in 2014, after it was revealed then-Fisheries Minister Gail Shea ignored the advice of her own departmental scientists in authorizing the fishery.

Lawyers for five Nuu-chah-nulth Nations argued unsuccessfully before a different judge that, given similar circumstances in 2015, an injunction should be granted.

Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council fisheries manager Dr. Don Hall said the First Nations will not appeal the decision, since the Spring fishery will be over by time they could get a court date.

Also, the warm, spring-like weather during February could work in the First Nations’ favor, as schools of herring have already been spotted spawning in some sheltered bays along the rugged west coast.

“Our harvesters are setting trees again this year with the hope of a good return of herring, but right now it is looking like another year of going without one of our favorite foods,” said Foxcroft, before asking that commercial herring boats fish elsewhere until stocks rebuild.

In the meantime, Nuu-chah-nulth leaders will begin preparation for another legal battle over herring this same time next year.