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Traditional Knowledge Wins Over Commercialism as Herring Roe Fishery Canceled

Win for traditional knowledge as DFO cancels herring roe fishery in face of Tseshaht First Nation blockade and Haida Gwaii wins court.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has canceled a herring fishery on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and Tseshaht First Nation leaders suspect it may have been because of the band’s threats to blockade commercial seiners.

Tseshaht First Nation members had planned to use their small fishing boats to block a commercial herring opening scheduled for Sunday, March 8. They were the third First Nation to challenge large-scale commercial herring fishing in the region because of dwindling stocks. Nuu-Nulth-Chan First Nations lost their court fight, while the Haida Gwai won theirs.

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

Tseshaht First Nation elected Chief Councillor Hugh Braker sent an ultimatum to Fisheries and Oceans Canada last week and issued a request for his band’s members to prevent the large seiners from dropping their nets.

“Tseshaht will take the necessary steps to exercise our rights and prevent commercial boats from accessing the resource until Tseshaht needs are met,” Braker wrote in a letter to Fisheries Minister Gail Shea. “Tseshaht rejects any suggestion that we are in any way responsible for this turn of events. We hold your Ministry completely responsible.”

Then, in a post on the Braker’s personal Facebook page, he asked Tseshaht members with boats to set tree branches and crab traps out where seiners might be deploying their nets.

“The band will pay $60 for the fuel of up to 15 Tseshaht boats to go to our traditional territories very early Sunday morning and set trees and branches in the water,” he wrote. “If enough trees and crab traps and prawn traps are put in the water, we might be able to delay the commercial harvest or shut it down completely until our needs are met. IF YOU HAVE A BOAT, PLEASE HELP ON THIS ONE. BUT ABOVE ALL ELSE STAY SAFE.”

Shortly before midnight on Saturday March 7, DFO sent out an e-mail advising that the fishery had been canceled.

“They said it was because of the low quality of roe in herring they sampled, but they knew we were on our way with a dozen to 15 boats to block the fishery,” said Braker. “If we had to put our boats in front of them we would have.”

DFO’s Dan Bate confirmed in an e-mail that “the Barclay Sound commercial herring fishery did not open today as test fishing in advance of a fishery showed that the quality or quantity of the stock was not sufficient to sustain an opening.”

For the Tseshaht people, the gathering of herring spawn on hemlock boughs or kelp is an annual delicacy they’ve enjoyed for thousands of years. Braker said there hasn’t been a good harvest of siih-muu (pronounced SEEK-moo) in 15 years, and Tseshaht has had to purchase eggs from other First Nations for the past two years.

Last month a group of five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations went to federal court to issue an injunction against the herring fishery on the west coast of Vancouver Island. They lost their case, but the Haida Nation won an injunction against a commercial herring fishery in their territorial waters on similar grounds, the Canadian Press reported. On March 7 a federal court judge ruled that opening the large commercial herring roe fishery off Haida Gwaii would cause “irreparable harm,” and that DFO should have consulted more with the First Nation.

For their part, Nuu-chah-nulth Nations vowed to be back in court next year to fight for their herring stocks again.

“We’ve always made it clear to the governments that we are always ready to meet and negotiate,” said Braker. “We’ve sent two letters to the Minister of Fisheries on this issue but haven’t received any reply. The herring are the backbone of the ecosystem, and it was a disastrous DFO fisheries policy in the 1980’s that almost wiped them out. They’re only just now starting to show signs of a recovery.”