Heiltsuk Will Risk Arrest To Blockade Herring Boats, Warns Chief Councillor

Heiltsuk protest the re-opening of the herring fishery outside the Canfisco offices in Bella Bella. Photo by Damien Gillis and Pacific Wild.

Heiltsuk protest the re-opening of the herring fishery outside the Canfisco offices in Bella Bella. Photo by Damien Gillis and Pacific Wild.

Vancouver Observer

The herring battle on the central B.C. coast heated up Thursday with warnings from Heiltsuk tribal leaders that further commercial herring boats will be physically blockaded if the Department of Fisheries and Oceans re-opens the catch further.

“We have a small fleet of boats getting ready to go out on to the water if the [herring] fishery is opened by DFO,” said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett with the Heiltsuk Tribal Council.

“We are putting DFO on notice, both regionally with the Vancouver office, and locally in Bella Bella, that our community is ready to go,” she sighed.

She added, Heiltsuk would be willing to be arrested to stop the commercial fishing vessels, which are now under the close eye of RCMP and Coast Guard boats brought in to observe the conflict.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Flett late Thursday.

“We are just trying to protect the herring.  We have an Aboriginal right to fish and harvest spawn on kelp.  We’re just trying to ensure it’s sustainable and there into the future,” she added.

Video of Aboriginal leaders shot and provided by Pacific Wild in Bella Bella this week.

Locals plan to blockade the outsider boats by either putting out their traditional roe-on-kelp fishing lines wherever the vessels cast their nets; or by physically frustrating the boats by “any means necessary” said Flett.

The Heilsuk have declared a “herring fishing ban” and issued notice to a gill net boat called the “Golden Chalice” docked in Bella Bella, as well as to the local DFO office on Denny Island.

In response, the federal government upped the ante:

“DFO respects the right to protest, however the Department condemns any threat of violence or reprisal against those exercising their right to practice a lawful and sustainable fishery,” said the department in a statement.

“DFO is engaged in an continued dialogue with the Heiltsuk First Nation. The department was open to compromise on setting aside or keeping closed key areas of the Heiltsuk First Nation for food, social and ceremonial and commercial Spawn on Kelp fisheries. This offer was turned down by attending Heiltsuk representatives.”

Herring essential to coastal ecosystem

The herring are a crucial food stock for nearly everything on the coast — from the salmon, sea lions and whales at sea, and the grizzlies, wolves and people on land.  The fish lay untold millions of eggs on the shorelines each year at this time.  Locals fear the deposits are in the worst shape in years.

The conflict over the herring flared up Sunday, when the first wave of commercial fishing was re-started in the Spiller Channel near Bella Bella, catching Heiltsuk by surprise.  Large “seine” industrial boats sucked up several hundreds tonnes of herring.

A second wave of smaller gill net boats is expected to remove the herring next.

herring seign dishing boat bella bella - Ian McAllister

Commercial seine boat fishing herring near Bella Bella on the central coast on Sunday.  Photo by Ian McAllister.

Among the companies fishing herring on the central coast is Canfisco owned by one of the richest persons in Canada: Vancouver-billionaire Jim Pattison, now 86.

The Pattison Group’s offices were protested, and issued condemnations by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

The company defers its comments about the conflict to the Herring Industry Advisory Board, which defends the federal government’s re-opening of the herring catch, after many years of being closed in several coastal pockets.

“We believe the [federal] minister has taken a conservative approach in the total allowable catch for the area.  Basically, directing it to be 10 percent used…which is half of what would be used in normal circumstances,” said the industry group’s chair Greg Thomas earlier this week.

“The catches in relative terms are small.  800 tonnes for purse seine boats, and 600 tonnes for gill nets.  Sounds like a lot of fish.  But in fishing terms, those are relatively modest targets,” he added.

Experienced fishermen are telling Aboriginal leadership that following this year’s contested catch, locals will be lucky to catch anything substantive for five to 10 years, said Flett.

“That’s really devastating to the community,” she added.

Earlier this month, the nearby Haida island community was granted a federal injunction against the federal government to prevent the commercial herring fishery from taking place in their territory.  DFO called off the herring fishery in Barkley Sound due to poor egg samples, according to a Heiltsuk statement.

The department says its science shows the herring fish stocks have recovered enough to allow limited catches in accordance with conservation goals

DFO Pacific science personnel were cut by the Harper government in 2012.  The department confirmed Thursday it now has just 3.5 staff related to the science of the herring fishery.  A spokesperson added, the staff cuts did not affect positions involved in herring research on the west coast.