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Feds to reopen herring fishery despite objections by First Nations and scientists

Conservative Fishing Minister reopened the herring fisheries against the views of federal scientists, a court heard.

bear eating herring bc west coast
Bear looking for herring on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo by Raincoast Conservation.

A federal court struck down a legal attack by coastal B.C. First Nations attempting to overturn the federal Conservative fishing minister's decision to reopen herring fisheries in coastal waters.

The oily fish—that ordinarily provides a springtime feeding frenzy for grizzlies, whales and wolves—has not been fished in three coastal pockets since 2005, due to over-fishing concerns.

Five B.C. First Nations, along with federal scientists, still believe herring stocks on the west coast of Vancouver Island, around Haida Gwaii and on the central coast are in a seriously fragile state. That's why the Aboriginal communities filed an injunction to stop the federal minister, who re-opened the resource to commercial fishing in January.

Controversially, the court heard that Minister Gail Shea, a Conservative MLA from PEI, made the decision against the views of her own federal scientists. Last year, Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists told her:

“For the three [herring fishing] areas showing signs of recovery, it is recommended that they remain closed in 2014,” a DFO memo concluded.

The minister was not immediately available for comment late Friday.

Science ignored?

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council said the Harper government’s decision to proceed against scientific recommendations is a familiar situation.

“The minister rejected the advice of her entire department — not just the scientists, but also her senior managers, and senior staff,” said the council’s fisheries scientist, Dr. Don Hall. 

“She chose to open [the fishery]. Who convinced her to open it?  It seems only logical that it was the industry,” he added.

But despite the protestations over the state of the herring—  first to the minister, and later to the court — the First Nations' injunction was thrown out by a federal judge late Friday afternoon. The fishing industry lobby was pleased with the ruling, stating it confirms the herring levels are now sustainable.

It added that the federal government spends more than one million dollars annually calculating the size of the herring stock.

“The fishing industry is fine with not fishing… when [herring stocks] need to re-build,” said Greg Thomas, chair of the Herring Industry Advisory Board on Friday.

“But when the stocks resume, industry needs to access these areas to sustain the industry,” he added.

The industry group says First Nations and commercial fisheries are “not far apart,” since both want a sustainable fishery.

Herring spawn eggs roe - coastal BC - Ian McAllister Pacific Wild

Herring spawn eggs in tidal waters in the Great Bear Rainforest on B.C.'s central coast.  Photo by Pacific Wild.

But the Nuu-chah-nulth dispute the federal methodology used to assess the health of the herring stocks. They state that their indigenous fishermen have seldom seen lower levels of herring roe (eggs) in their traditional nets.

“Last year, like they’ve done for hundreds and thousands of years, Nuu-chah-nulth went out, and up and down the coast of Vancouver Island, and they saw very poor evidence of spawn,” said Hall.

Police presence at fishing docks

The issue has polarized commercial fishing companies and Aboriginal peoples for two years, resulting in a high-level RCMP presence last year to keep the peace over the controversial fishing.

RCMP boats herring fishing Bella Bella Heiltsuk - Pacific Wild

RCMP boats stationed in Bella Bella in spring 2014 to keep the peace over the herring fishing.  Photo by Pacific Wild.

Reportedly, 60 RCMP were dispatched to the Bella Bella area last spring.

“Last year, it was ridiculous. What did that cost the Canadian taxpayer, to have RCMP boats and staff up there, for the value of this fishery? It makes no sense,” said Hall.

Heiltsuk Tribal Council on the central coast has now asked the RCMP to clarify what kind of police presence they might send this year, said Hall.

The 'First Nations versus the industry' drama has even caught the attention of National Geographic this month, which reported on the collapse of herring stocks worldwide. It quoted Haida Gwaii officials worried the commercial fishing boats will harm the herring stocks further.

"We can't risk them taking any more," Guujaaw, ex-president of the Council of the Haida Nation told National Geographic. "Herring are central to everything here."

Friday’s court ruling means commercial fishing boats will be entitled to return to the coastal areas of concern.

But a further legal attack is coming. Several First Nations are filing a B.C. Supreme Court challenge in March, asking the court if indigenous rights have been ignored in the coastal fishing areas.

Ahousaht, Ehattesaht, Hesquiht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations were all fighting for the injunction.

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