After a hard-fought struggle to defend their rights and the future of the West Coast herring, members of the Heiltsuk First Nation successfully shut down an unwelcome herring fishery on their territory, taking on the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) along the way.
The Heiltsuk Nation is located on the central coast of British Columbia. Historically, they have lived off the land and sea. Throughout their history, they have had a thriving fishery to rely upon which is integral to their culture and economy. However, due to the dramatic changes in fish stocks, their traditional way of life is under constant threat.
Since 2006, the central coast of BC had been closed to commercial herring fisheries due to low fish stocks as a result of over-fishing. In 2014, the DFO re-opened the coast to commercial herring fishing. Not only did this go against the constitutional rights of the Heiltsuk First Nation and the other coastal First Nations whose interests were ignored, but leaked emails revealed that the government's own scientists recommended that the fishery remain closed in order to help re-build the herring population.
The DFO has since claimed that its science was updated in 2015 and that a 'limited catch' is sustainable. During this time, the Heiltsuk had already given up their herring licenses, and closed the commercial fishery for this year. Despite this, on March 22nd, the DFO opened a commercial seine fishery without informing the Heiltsuk. Community members took to the waters in their boats to try and stop the seine fleet from harvesting the herring, but by the time they had arrived, the fleet had already harvested about 680 tonnes of herring. When the DFO planned to open a commercial gill-netting fishery in an area known as Area 7, allocating another 600 tonnes of herring to the commercial fleet, the Heiltsuk promised that they would stop the fishery 'by any means necessary.'
On March 29th, after the DFO refused to cancel the gill-net fishery, members of the Heiltsuk First Nation began an occupation of the DFO office on Denny Island with the support of more than 150 community members camping outside. The following day, an occupation began outside the DFO office in Vancouver. Solidarity actions took place across the coast as supporters protested the planned fishery on Heiltsuk territory. The United Fisherman and Allied Worker's Union backed the Heiltsuk, advising gillnet fishers not to fish the central coast.
On April 2nd, after ten days of negotiations and demonstrations, Heiltsuk vessels escorted commercial herring boats as they made their way out of the central coast after having successfully closed the Area 7 gillnet fishery. The DFO signed a historic letter of understanding to jointly manage resources with the Heiltsuk.
Bad Science, Bad Intentions
There are good reasons for Indigenous nations not to have much faith in the science and intentions of the DFO. In the 1990s, the DFO allowed over-fishing to cause a disastrous collapse of the Maritime cod stock. While the DFO blamed the collapse on forces beyond their control, including 'cold water temperature and predation by seals', it gagged its own scientists who either warned of the impending collapse or tried to reveal the truth afterward. To this day, the East Coast cod have never recovered. This drive for capitalist profits out of the rivers, lakes and oceans leads the decisions and policies of the DFO. Indigenous nations have also had to square off with the DFO from coast to coast to assert their rights to harvest and protect fish on their territories. In 1999, well-armed DFO boats ran over Mi'kmaq fishing boats on the waters of Burnt Church, Nova Scotia, to prevent the Mi'kmaq from harvesting lobster on their territory. For years, the DFO brutalized members of the Cheam First Nation for harvesting salmon on the Fraser River on their un-ceded traditional territory. The Heiltsuk have also had to take their struggle to assert their fishing rights to the Supreme Court of Canada to win the Gladstone Decision acknowledging their legal right to harvest herring roe.
Strong and United: The Heiltsuk Victory
The actions taken by the Heiltsuk to protect not only the herring, but the future of their way of life, sends a strong message to people across Canada that you can stand up for your rights and win. They are joining the Haida Nation who had already won an injunction to block a planned commercial fishery this year.
It is important to note that this recent struggle could look very differently with the passing of the Harper Conservative government's Bill C-51. Under this new bill, the Heiltsuk would have certainly been placed under the category of 'terrorist' for having interfered with Canada's 'economic stability' and faced the heavy-handed tactics of the Conservative's proposed secret police force. It is our job to take the inspiration from the Heiltsuk struggle and strengthen our opposition to the Conservative government's attack on all of our rights.
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