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Heiltsuk heartbroken by herring fishery's re-start, with RCMP protection

“We’re really concerned this fish will be fished to extinction,” said Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett.  "Our community just can’t bear that risk.

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Heiltsuk herring RCMP fish commercial Vancouver Obverser  Ian McAllister

Heiltsuk woman Carrie Humchitt watches as commercial fishing boat takes in tonnes of herring fish in a disputed fishing area on the B.C. central coast near Bella Bella on Sunday.  Photo by Ian McAllister.

The large commercial fishing boats came in and within 12 hours, had scooped up their quota, and finished.

Many Heiltsuk have doubts about the DFO science that justified the fishery's re-opening, saying the government's fish count tests were based on biomass gathered from such a wide area, the results have no relevance to the coastal waters of concern to Heiltsuk.  

They also point to recent Harper government cutbacks of federal fishery scientists.  

DFO was contacted Monday for comment, but said the department would need 24 hours to respond.

But last week, it said: "DFO respects the right to protest, however, we condemn any threat of violence or reprisal against those exercising their right to practice a lawful and sustainable fishery," the department told the Canadian Press.

herring fish underwater Ian McAllister Pacific Wild Bella Bella

Herring fish underwater near Bella Bella.  Photo by Ian McAllister, Pacific Wild.

Heiltsuk leadership hoped negotiations with DFO would lead to the federal government to not allow the fishery in the disputed area seven.  They also worry the herring fish caught by the commercial boats Sunday were too young.

“[If] we have another collapse we can only blame DFO and industry for mismanaging a sensitive stock that hasn’t even recovered yet,” said Humchitt.

Some thought the the Heiltsuk's legal standing would be fortified by the so-called Gladstone Supreme Court decision, that granted the nation protection of their traditional Aboriginal fishing rights.  

“The problem is, at the same we were celebrating the Gladstone decision, DFO had pretty well run the fishery to pretty well near biological extinction by these huge seine boats to kill as many fish [as possible],” said Ian McAllister, a wildlife photographer and conservationist with Pacific Wild.

“The Heiltsuk have put forward a traditional fishery that by all reckoning is considered sustainable.  It’s only the DFO kill fish model that is unsustainable, and this is where the two cultures collide," McAllister added.  

The Heiltsuk wrote an open letter to the Jim Pattison group, which owns Canadian Fishing Company — one of nine companies operating fishing boats.  The letter urges Pattison to desist from the herring fishery in their area.  The company declined to comment, referring the matter to the Herring Industry Advisory Board.

Heiltsuk Bella Bella Ian McAllister Pacific Wild herring fishery

Herring waters near Bella Bella.  Photo by Ian McAllister.
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