The first herring spawn began today in the Great Bear Rainforest. A keystone ritual that has provided a foundation of life, so revered over the last ten thousand years that the Heiltsuk new year is marked by the miracle of the herring spawn.
Like a gathering shadow, herring have been filling the bays and inlets of the central coast these past weeks while salmon, wolves, bears and whales close in on the herring spawning grounds ready for the first big feast of the year. Normally this would be a cause of celebration and renewal for the Heiltsuk people, but these days this spawning event seems more like a lament fuelled by anger and controversy.
Against all principles of precaution and conservation, the Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea chose to open the corporate-controlled industrial kill fishery that will target these fragile remnant stocks. By doing this she is ignoring the pleas of First Nations while also overruling her very own scientists who recommended a closure in 2014.
The Minister is also jeopardizing the Heiltsuk traditional spawn on kelp fishery that collects a small amount of the eggs but allows the adults to live and spawn in future years. By all accounts the Heiltsuk fishery is a sustainable, community-based alternative to the DFO-supported fishery that indiscriminately kills both male and female herring of all sizes. The DFO model strips the females of eggs and the rest ends up as pet food or fishing bait.
And for what? The fishing fleet that has arrived here has a 750-tonne harvest quota valued at around $200 per tonne. Most of these boats have already incurred over $20,000 in expenses, when fuel, crew and licenses are added up – before a single fish is caught.
So no one is making money on this fishery. In days gone by 30,000 or 40,000 tonnes were taken by the fleet here, and a big year was 60,000 tonnes. DFO states they are only taking ten or twenty percent of the fish biomass. But that is ten or twenty percent of
a stock that is on the verge of collapse.
Another hallmark of the herring season is the heavy-handed presence of RCMP officers that arrive with the fleet. There have been six RCMP boats stationed here on Denny Island along with two-dozen officers ready to enforce this desperate fishery. A needless waste of public money is being used to intimidate a small community that is simply fighting for the future of herring.
The ecological tragedy that this coast suffers because of the unsustainable herring kill fishery is made even worse when DFO knows there is a sustainable solution. They should be supporting the Heiltsuk in rebuilding herring stocks while practicing sustainable harvest methods such as the spawn on kelp fishery.
For twenty-five years I have watched the Heiltsuk fight for sustainable management of their local stocks, sacrificing their own economic interests in favour of conservation. They have done everything possible from the courts to the frontlines of the herring grounds to convince the federal government to simply back off and give the stocks a chance to rebuild.
For a community that right up until the industrial fishing began here can show ten thousand years of documented and uninterrupted history with herring, perhaps it is time that DFO came to Bella Bella and listened.
Canadians should do everything possible to support this community in their fight to protect a species that has built and sustained so many for so long.