Tensions are rising on a remote stretch of British Columbia’s Central Coast, where a commercial herring fleet is gathering to fish in an area long closed because of conservation concerns.
Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea overruled her own staff recently in deciding to allow fishing this spring, but as the opening approaches, First Nations are increasingly demanding that the fishery be called off.
“We actually had an emergency community meeting last night on how we are going to deal with this,” Doug Neasloss, resource stewardship director of the Kitasoo band, said Monday in an interview from Klemtu, B.C.
Mr. Neasloss said there are six commercial gillnet boats tied up in Kitasu Bay, waiting for the opening, and more boats are expected to arrive soon.
The band planned to deliver letters to the fishing boat crews Monday, asking them not to fish.
“Our first approach is to ask them to leave. If they don’t, it sounds like all Central Coast communities will be converging on Kitasu Bay,” said Mr. Neasloss.
Central Coast bands are planning to have small fisheries of their own, as they collect herring eggs in what is known as a spawn-on-kelp fishery. But the commercial fleet could harvest hundreds of tonnes of herring in advance of that, before the herring have had a chance to spawn on the kelp, reducing the amount available for the bands.
“Industry has to fish before the fish spawn. So they are getting the first crack at it and what’s left for us … is more uncertainty,” said Reg Moody, a councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation, in Bella Bella, B.C., about 80 kilometres south of Klemtu.
Mr. Moody said it looks like Kitasu Bay will be the key area where the fleet sets its nets, and all the bands on the Central Coast are prepared to go there to join the Kitasoo band in protest.
“There might be some fireworks. I hope nobody gets hurt, but everybody is gearing up for the conflict,” he said.
Mr. Moody, however, said he is still hoping trouble can be headed off through talks with DFO and the commercial herring fishermen.
Greg Thomas, a spokesman for the Herring Industry Advisory Board, which represents commercial fishermen, said fishermen simply can’t afford not to fish.
“When the industry plans for a fishery they make investments to go ahead, and to do that they in some cases lease licences and whatnot, and once you’ve done that, you’ve made a commitment to the fishery,” he said.
He said the commercial fleet can harvest herring in the area without spoiling the native spawn-on-kelp harvest.
The Central Coast, Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island have been closed to commercial herring fishing for most of the past decade because of stock declines.
In a memo to the minister in December, DFO officials wrote: “While there is some indication that the three closed areas are showing signs that the stock is rebuilding, the Department would like to see more evidence of a durable and sustained recovery before re-opening.”
They recommended extending the closing until 2015. But Ms. Shea ordered all three areas opened.
The Haida later negotiated with industry for a continued closing, and the Nuu-chah-nulth got a Federal Court injunction forcing the government to keep the West Coast of Vancouver Island closed.
In an e-mail on Monday, Dan Bate, a spokesman for DFO, said the Central Coast herring harvest “is a legitimate fishery backed by solid fisheries science.”
He said DFO “is monitoring the situation and will take appropriate enforcement action if there are any Fisheries Act violations.”
The RCMP are also monitoring the situation and have several boats near Bella Bella and Klemtu.