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In March, what had been anticipated as a potential $6-million harvest for the Heiltsuk Nation was cancelled, reflecting market upheaval as a result of COVID-19 and the challenges of physical distancing on small fishing boats.Courtesy of manufacturer

Around this time of year, British Columbia’s Heiltsuk Nation would usually be wrapping up its roe-on-kelp fishery, a short, seasonal harvest that is a cultural mainstay for the Heiltsuk and has also become a major source of income for the community.

The fishery involves hanging weighted kelp from lines in bays or other areas where herring are known to spawn. After fish lay their eggs on the kelp, it’s harvested and processed in a Canadian Food Inspection Agency-certified plant in Bella Bella, B.C., where it’s packed in brine and then shipped as a crunchy, protein-rich delicacy to seafood markets in Japan.

The harvest doesn’t kill the fish, which can go on to spawn in future seasons. The Heiltsuk say that makes the fishery more sustainable than the commercial sac roe fishery, in which female herring are caught for their eggs; they had been hoping to introduce the golden-coloured product to local markets, possibly through partnerships with chefs and restaurants.

In March, however, what had been anticipated as a potential $6-million harvest was cancelled – reflecting market upheaval as a result of COVID-19 and the challenges of physical distancing on small fishing boats.

The decision affected about 700 Heiltsuk Nation members and left the community worried about the economic impact of cancelling the fishery and whether their members would qualify for government aid. Heiltsuk leaders are uncertain whether people taking part in the roe-on-kelp fishery will meet the income and other thresholds set under existing aid programs, including the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

“My concern for my community going forward is to make sure their financial needs are met – we are very concerned about the total collapse of the markets, and our fishery,” Frank Brown, a long-time fisherman and a Heiltsuk Nation hereditary chief, said in a recent interview.

The roe-on-kelp fishery usually takes place in March or April, depending on when the fish arrive. The projected loss from cancelling the season is $6.3-million, the Heiltsuk Nation says, along with about $250,000 in salaries for 40 plant workers.

“You can imagine how gut-wrenching that was, to make the decision not to go,” said Mr. Brown, who’s been fishing for decades.

The Heiltsuk Nation, whose traditional territory covers about 35,500 square kilometres on B.C.'s Central Coast, is among many Indigenous communities whose seafood harvests have been upended by COVID-19. The group has population of about 2,500.

Herring has been a mainstay for the Heiltsuk for generations and the roe-on-kelp fishery is a key part of the nation’s efforts to build a sustainable economy for its members, says chief councillor Marilyn Slett.

“It’s one of the most critically important economic drivers in our community,” she said. “Most of our market is overseas right now but we definitely want to expand into local markets."

Last year’s salmon runs were poor, making the roe-on-kelp even more important for the community and making it essential for governments to take a flexible approach to COVID-19 aid with the principles of reconciliation in mind, Ms. Slett said,

“Our communities aren’t always going to fit the box of what they put out for a national program,” she said.

Jane Deeks, a spokeswoman with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the government is working to ensure Heiltsuk members get support.

“We understand the decision of Heiltsuk First Nation to close their roe-on-kelp fishery right now and we want to be clear that the hard-working people of this community will not be left behind,” Ms. Deeks said in an e-mail on Sunday.

“For those who have lost income due to COVID-19, we have created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). We recently expanded it to include seasonal workers, such as fish harvesters and processors, who have exhausted their EI benefits, as well as those who make up to $1,000 a month. Anyone who meets the CERB criteria – including fish harvesters and processors – can apply for the benefit,” she said.

Ms. Deeks also cited other assistance programs, including the $305-million Indigenous Community Support Fund, announced in March, to address immediate COVID-19 needs in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities.

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