For three days and nights, members of the Heiltsuk First Nation on British Columbia's central coast have camped inside a federal fisheries office, calling on the department to put a stop to commercial herring fishing in the area.
The long-simmering conflict kicked into high gear when Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) abruptly opened herring roe fishing in Spiller Channel on Sunday, March 22—a move one hereditary chief called an "illegal... surprise attack."
Over the decades, commercial herring fisheries have closed a few times due to population collapse. The central coast herring fisheries were closed in 2006, then reopened to a 10 percent catch rate in 2013 after some stocks grew back.
The Heiltsuk maintain herring populations are still recovering and cannot sustain commercial harvest. They say the DFO's 10 percent catch rate bends to industry requests and ignores its own scientists.
Tensions escalated over the weekend, resulting in a full-scale occupation near Bella Bella, BC on Sunday, March 29. The Heiltsuk vowed to stop all gillnet herring fishing in "area seven"—a DFO management area that stretches from Hunter to Pooley Island.
"They've already taken out 689 tonnes from area seven, and that's enough," said Kelly Brown of the Heiltsuk's integrated resource management department. The First Nation has also taken to the water, keeping a close eye on contested areas like Kitasu Bay and Powell Anchorage.
The DFO's regional director general Sue Farlinger arrived on the scene late Monday afternoon to begin formal negotiations with the Heiltsuk. Since talks began, the First Nation has said two of their demands have been met: the DFO agreed to increase herring monitoring and training on Heiltsuk indigenous knowledge.
DFO spokesperson Karen Calla did not confirm those agreements in an email statement. "DFO is continuing negotiations with the Heiltsuk First Nation," she wrote. "We cannot provide any further update at this time."
The government is taking negotiations seriously, as recent aboriginal land and title rights cases have supported BC First Nations in court. The nearby Haida Nation recently won a court order to block commercial fishing on their territory.
But so far, the government hasn't conceded on the commercial gillnet herring harvest. On Tuesday, following a day of negotiations, Chief Marilyn Slett said she's not going to budge on the issue. "If the DFO doesn't have the authority to shut down area seven, we do," she said. "And we will exercise our authority."
Both Slett and Brown have occupied the DFO office overnight since Sunday. Dozens more supporters have set up tents in front of the building.
With files from Damien Gillis.
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