Hope for the roe: The Heiltsuk Nation and Pacific herring.

Image by Jørgen Schyberg | flickr.com

Image by Jørgen Schyberg | flickr.com

Back on January 18, 2015, the Heiltsuk Nation and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) reached a co-management agreement. After the near-collapse of B.C. herring fisheries in the 1960s, the Heiltsuk and DFO spent years disagreeing over the extent to which the herring were recovering. Hopefully, this new management agreement should help to resolve herring exploitation and related conflict on British Columbia’s Central Coast.

Times certainly seems to be changing, thanks to the efforts of the Heiltsuk Nation. They request closure of the commercial herring roe fishery to allow stocks to increase. This makes sense, as harvesting fish eggs means that many fish will never be given a chance to hatch, helping to expand the herring population. This fishery also results in the deaths of many mature herring that are of reproductive age, and if not subject to fishing, would be able to continue reproducing for years to come. Early in 2015, the Heiltsuk Nation voluntarily suspended its community-owned commercial gillnet herring licenses for the season, allowing stocks to rebuild. Unfortunately, these efforts were undermined because of DFO and industry refusal to do the same.

Soon after, in March of 2015, Aboriginal fishermen, concerned that their observations of the herring spawn did not match DFO forecasts, initiated an occupation of the DFO on Denny Island, B.C. 70 people of the Heiltsuk Nation protested for four days on the opening of commercial fisheries in their waters. After members of the Heiltsuk Nation witnessed 625 tonnes of fish removed from the waters in only two days, they pledged to blockade and camp outside of the DFO building until the commercial herring fishery was closed.

Now, less than a year after the protest, the Heiltsuk Nation and the DFO have reached an agreement and created a management plan that contains four significant improvements. The DFO will revive a previously used method of herring stock forecast that Heiltsuk people believe is more accurate. Furthermore, the current harvest rate will be reduced from 10% to 7%, and the sac roe fishery in Spiller Channel – one of the most important spawning grounds for the herring – will be closed. A Heiltsuk observer will be on all fishery boats during the herring harvest, in acknowledgement of the Nation’s right to environmental stewardship.

Unfortunately, Canadian fisheries management does not have the greatest track record, and has allowed overexploitation to occur in the past, despite scientific understanding of collapse. In the North Atlantic, cod fishers had been aware of changes in the stock population for a long time, but the government only addressed the issue in 1992 once stocks had collapsed. As a result, the North Atlantic cod fishery was halted, negatively affecting the 400-year-old culture and livelihood of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. Had management practices been put into place sooner, local communities and their fish might not have taken such a hard hit. Today, DFO’s prompt changes in herring fishery policy show us that cultural and traditional knowledge can no longer be ignored.

Herring are culturally important to the Heiltsuk people and play a crucial ecological role to the environment. Chinook salmon, Pacific hake, lingcod, Pacific cod, Halibut, and harbour seals all feed on herring as part of their diet, and herring roe provide food for seabirds and other species. If herring become depleted, it will be an economic and cultural issue for Aboriginal people, an economic issue for the commercial fishery, and a problem for the entire B.C. central coast.

Ultimately, the co-management plan created by the Heiltsuk Nation and the DFO recognizes the value in combining traditional knowledge and western science. The Heiltsuk Nation have created immense change through their dedication to local marine ecosystems, and with their guidance we can hope to achieve sustainable harvest levels and preserve the environment for future generations.