A controversial herring fishery has begun on B.C.'s Central Coast, so far without any confrontations on the water, but First Nations say they are watching carefully and will take action if the fleet moves into areas the bands have declared off limits.
"We had a conference call with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and we said, 'When you open up Kitasu Bay, we are going to protest,' " said Doug Neasloss, resource stewardship director of the Kitasoo band in Klemtu. "I don't think some of the [government] higher-ups really understand how serious it can get up here. I think they were thinking we weren't going to protest at all. … We told them, 'Yeah, we're not bluffing.' "
Tensions have been rising since last December, when Fisheries Minister Gail Shea overruled her staff and approved fishing in three areas in B.C. that had been closed for nearly a decade for conservation concerns.
The fisheries were cancelled in two of those areas. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth got a court injunction blocking the fishery, and on Haida Gwaii, the commercial fleet agreed to stand down for a year to allow more research on herring stocks.
DFO rejected native requests to cancel the Central Coast fishery, and the bands declared they would impose their own closing. RCMP vessels have been in the area this week to head off any clashes.
On Tuesday, Mr. Neasloss delivered letters to five commercial boats asking them to leave Kitasu Bay. He said conflict was averted when they moved on to fish elsewhere.
"Out of the five boats, four left right away. The other one was a bit iffy and there was a heated discussion with that boat. At the end of the day, he decided to leave. ... Then DFO decided to open up the west side of Aristazabal Island, which is not far from Kitasu Bay – and that's only where they are going to start their fishery, so we're basically standing by to see [which area opens next]," Mr. Neasloss said.
Mel Kotyk, DFO's area manager, said that by late Thursday, the fleet had taken about 625 tonnes of herring, which was short of the 750 tonnes allotted for the Central Coast. He said it appears the fleet will be able to make its total catch without going into Kitasu Bay.
"It looks like we can get the fishery done and not cause any conflict, which is nice," he said.
Greg Thomas, a spokesman for the Herring Industry Advisory Board, said he is glad conflicts have been avoided and hopes that continues.
He said the fleet would not go in to disputed waters, such as Kitasu Bay, if they could reach their target along Aristazabal Island.
Typically during a herring fishery DFO monitors the stock, then allows the fleet to fish in areas where the fish have schooled up to spawn.
"It depends on what happens with the fish. If they can take the 750 tonnes out there [at Aristazabal], they will fish it and go home. If not, they'll be looking for other opportunities, and that will be up to the [DFO] manager to work it out," he said.
Reg Moody, a councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, said DFO needs to make more conservative estimates on the size of herring stocks, to limit the commercial catch and give native communities "more certainty" that there will be fish left for them.
He said local bands want an active role in managing the herring fishery and assessing the size of the stock.
"What we've said is … until we're a part of the process, there's never going to be peace on the Central Coast," Mr. Moody said.