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A joint planning process between the Heiltsuk Nation and Ottawa is on the rocks after Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray cancelled the First Nation’s critical spawn-on-kelp fishery late last year, Heiltsuk leaders say.Handout

A joint planning process between the Heiltsuk Nation and Ottawa is on the rocks after Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray cancelled the First Nation’s critical spawn-on-kelp fishery late last year, Heiltsuk leaders say.

They maintain the decision, announced Dec. 16, came without advance notice and after Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Heiltsuk had agreed on a limited spawn-on-kelp fishery.

“The unilateral decision took more than the fishery from us,” elected Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said in a recent interview.

“The decision that was made, and how [Ms. Murray] made it, pulled that joint management process from underneath us as well.”

Heiltsuk leaders are meeting this month to discuss possible next steps.

The Heiltsuk’s spawn-on-kelp fishery – which involves harvesting herring roe, or eggs, on kelp suspended in the ocean – typically accounts for sales of around $5-million to $6-million a year, mostly to Japan, making it a small part of Canada’s overall seafood and aquaculture exports, which amounted to $8.7-billion last year.

But the fishery is a big deal for the Heiltsuk, in economic and cultural terms. The tensions over the nation’s joint management process highlight challenges for Ms. Murray, whose mandate letter calls for her to restore stocks while integrating Indigenous knowledge into policy decisions.

Ms. Murray’s staff said she was not available for an interview.

In an e-mailed statement, Ms. Murray’s press secretary, Claire Teichman, said the minister is committed to conserving and protecting Pacific herring.

“Pacific herring is vital to the health of our ecosystem, and the stock is in a fragile state,” Ms. Teichman said, adding that, “We must do what we can to protect and regenerate this important forage species.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada considered First Nations input in its decision on harvest levels and is maintaining fishing for food, social and ceremonial purposes in all areas for First Nations, she added.

The Heiltsuk, however, say their input was ignored, despite a joint management process that had concluded a limited spawn-on-kelp fishery could proceed.

That process began through a compromise reached in 2015, after Heiltsuk members occupied the federal department’s office in Bella Bella, B.C., that year to protest against commercial herring fisheries in the area.

Through that joint process, the Heiltsuk pushed for a more conservative approach to stock estimates and higher conservation targets, Heiltsuk fisheries manager Mike Reid said.

Up until late last year, that process, based on input from both the fisheries department and Heiltsuk research, had allowed for a small spawn-on-kelp fishery, Mr. Reid said.

“There’s nothing in that science that says our fishery would impact the biomass or the health of the herring,” he said.

The spawn on kelp usually takes place in March and April, depending on when the fish arrive.

On Dec. 16, Ms. Murray announced that most commercial Pacific herring fisheries would be closed, citing risks to wild salmon, which rely on herring for food.

In a Dec. 17 e-mail to Mr. Reid, provided to The Globe and Mail, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says it is “at a bit of a loss for a lot of words … based on the guidance received yesterday.” The e-mail goes on to discuss draft wording for a regional fisheries plan that will close the spawn-on-kelp fishery, acknowledging the draft wording “is not an agreed-to approach that is supported by the Heiltsuk.”

The Heiltsuk’s main community is Bella Bella, which is located on the central coast of B.C. and accessible by boat or plane. The nation’s traditional territory spans about 35,500 square kilometres of land and sea.

Frank Brown, a Heiltsuk hereditary chief and long-time fisherman, said the spawn-on-kelp fishery can involve up to nearly 700 people – families tend to go out and harvest together – and is a major source of income for the community.

He argued that small-scale, lower-impact fisheries like the Heiltsuk’s spawn-on-kelp harvest could be part of a more sustainable fishing industry.

“We are moving forward in times of tremendous uncertainty,” Mr. Brown said, citing an ocean heat wave known as “the blob” and ocean acidification as two of many factors affecting ocean health.

“This is an Indigenous, place-based fishery. It’s a model of how we can navigate, going forward in these uncertain times.”

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