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Elected Chief Rebecca David of the Pauquachin First Nation at the at the shores of Coles Bay on June 22.Taylor Roades/The Globe and Mail

A First Nation on Vancouver Island has been legally barred from accessing one of its primary traditional food sources for the past 25 years, one of 154 shellfish harvesting sites closed by federal law in B.C. due to poor water quality.

Some of those sites may be safe at times, a recent audit concluded, but they cannot be reopened because the federal agency in charge of testing those waters is understaffed. As a result, it devotes the majority of its limited resources to commercial harvesting areas.

Shellfish beds First Nations have relied on for as long as their people have existed haven’t been given such high priority.

Up and down B.C.’s coastline, millions of hectares of shellfish harvesting beds are closed by federal law because of unsafe levels of biotoxins, pollutants or chemicals. Some of those are temporary, caused by things such as seasonal algae blooms, but others are permanent closings prompted by continuing sources of contaminants and inaction to clean things up.

Dozens have been closed for several decades and many of those disproportionately affect First Nations.

Such is the case for the Pauquachin First Nation on Southern Vancouver Island, where their traditional shellfish beds in Coles Bay have been legally off limits to them since 1997. The federal group in charge of testing the safety of coastal waters, the Canadian Sanitary Shellfish Program (CSSP), declared the bay’s waters too polluted. Since then, little to nothing has been done to address that.

“We’ve been left behind by all levels of government who have failed to see Indigenous needs and rights. To have blanket closures for over two decades is simply unacceptable,” Pauquachin First Nation Chief Rebecca David said.

Bolstered by research from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, the Pauquachin is calling on municipal, provincial and federal governments to commit to a Healthy Shellfish Initiative with the goal of reopening 80 per cent of closed B.C. shellfish beds by 2027.

One of the barriers, said the legal director of UVic’s Environmental Law Centre Calvin Sandborn, is the lack of regular testing at the federal level, as only they have authority to open or close a site. A June, 2022, audit of the CSSP, led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, found the program doesn’t have enough resourcing to test all Canadian harvesting sites as frequently as it should.

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Warning signs dot the shores.Taylor Roades/The Globe and Mail

The audit said that, faced with what to prioritize, staff have been told to put commercial areas first, but weren’t given any guidance on what degree of importance to give Indigenous harvest areas intended for food, social or ceremonial use. Close to 80 per cent of internal interviewees said they don’t think the program is equitable.

The audit stated that this lack of testing could mean some harvest sites, and particularly those used by Indigenous groups rather than commercial fisheries, could be safe at times without anyone knowing it.

The CSSP monitored the waters of Coles Bay from 1997 to 2013, but stopped for about eight years when the Capital Regional District started doing its own storm water sampling around Greater Victoria. The problem with that, Pauquachin Marine Department head Octavio Cruz said, is that the CSSP doesn’t recognize any third-party testing, so while the district’s efforts can indicate degrees of safety, it has no power to reopen an area.

The CSSP didn’t agree to resume its own testing of Coles Bay again until 2022, after Pauquachin First Nation submitted a formal request to the program.

“It’s impacted our culture and our way of life. It’s also impacted the health of our people,” Chief David said. The loss of the shellfish has forced community members to rely far more on Western foods over the past 25 years. It’s also meant the sacrifice of a vital aspect of their identity.

She said elders used to lead youth along the ocean waters and teach them about the importance of the shellfish and how to respectfully gather them.

A report by UVic’s Environmental Law Centre said that the closing has inflated food budgets and impacted community nutrition and health, while also disrupting vital cultural practices connected to shellfish harvest.

And, Chief David said, the lack of access violates the Douglas Treaties, in which involved First Nations were guaranteed the “liberty to hunt over the unoccupied lands, and to carry on [their] fisheries as formerly.”

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The Pauquachin First Nation is calling on municipal, provincial and federal governments to commit to a Healthy Shellfish Initiative with the goal of reopening 80 per cent of closed B.C. shellfish beds by 2027.Taylor Roades/The Globe and Mail

To restore that right, more than increasing federal testing needs to be done, Chief David said. The roots of coastal pollution need to be addressed.

Washington State has been paying attention to that for several decades.

The state has been working on a restoration program since the late 1980s, after it first noticed a serious decline in safe shellfish harvesting areas. By 1992, the state updated a law mandating that counties must create a shellfish protection district and plan for restoration within 180 days of a site closing or downgrade in water quality. They then have 60 days to implement that plan.

Canada has no such equivalent.

Scott Berbells, a manager at Washington State’s Shellfish Program, said things further improved in 2006 when the state set specific restoration targets. The program gained national attention and funding and they managed to upgrade or reopen 2,790 hectares of shellfish harvesting areas by 2020 – shy of their 4,370-hectare goal, but still a major success in Mr. Berbells’ eyes.

In the same period, the United States Environmental Protection Agency reported an increase in closings in the Canadian-monitored area of the Georgia Basin.

Washington’s Shellfish Program is now looking at continuing goals. Mr. Berbells said they’re aiming to upgrade at least 200 hectares of shellfish harvesting area a year going forward, based on a three-year rolling average.

He said prior to the late 1980s, Washington State had the same problem as B.C. – areas would close and nobody would try to figure out what the source of the contamination was.

“It’s when we started looking for the problem, and adding new rules and regulations around farms and around on-site sewage system management and these things, that we started seeing dramatic improvement.”

One of the key elements, according to Mr. Berbells, has been close collaboration between First Nations, governments and community organizations.

This is what Pauquachin First Nation is hoping for in B.C. It said it’s already taking steps to address its own contribution to pollution in Coles Bay, with plans to introduce natural filtration methods for storm water runoff and to replace their pump station, as well as continuing beach restoration efforts.

But the community said it needs commitments from other levels of government too.

“I think it’s such a fabulous opportunity for a step toward real reconciliation,” Mr. Sandborn said.

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