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A commercial fishing boat begins harvesting herring off the central coast of B.C. on March 22, 2015.

Courtesy Pacific Wild

Tensions are escalating on B.C.'s central coast where the Heiltsuk First Nation is protesting commercial herring fisheries.

Chief Marilyn Slett said Monday that after failing to stop the seine fleet from hauling in about 680 tonnes of herring over the weekend, plans are being made to escalate the protests when the gillnet fleet gets clearance to fish, possibly later this week.

"People are upset. They are angry," she said of the seine fleet's haul from nearby Spiller Channel.

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The seine boats were cleared for a short opening late Sunday after a test fishery showed the herring, which have massed for a spawning event, were ideal for harvesting. The commercial fleet likes to catch the herring when they are ripe with eggs.

Chief Slett said the Heiltsuk have two commercial herring licences, but decided not to use them this year because of concerns about the small size of the run.

She said the band had hoped the department of Fisheries and Oceans would stop the commercial fleet from fishing in the area out of respect for Heiltsuk concerns.

"We must put conservation first. We have voluntarily suspended our community-owned commercial gillnet herring licenses for this season to allow stocks to rebuild, but DFO and industry are unwilling to follow suit," said Kelly Brown, director of resource management for the Heiltsuk.

Chief Slett said while the seine boats appear to have finished fishing, the commercial gillnet fleet, which uses a different method of catching fish, is standing by, awaiting an opening.

She said the Heiltsuk are determined thier protest will halt the next herring harvest.

"We're going to stop the gillnet fishery," she declared.

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Ian McAllister, a wildlife photographer and director of the environmental group Pacific Wild, was in Spiller Channel when the seine fishery took place Sunday.

He said the opening occurred without warning and by the time Heiltsuk protesters arrived, the fishery was well under way, with RCMP and department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) patrol boats monitoring the situation.

"It was quite the scene," said Mr. McAllister. "Members of the Heiltsuk came racing out. It wasn't violent. But heated. There was a heavy police presence and a lot of emotion."

Mr. McAllister said the Heiltsuk harvest herring for food, social and ceremonial purposes and in the community there are deep concerns that the commercial fishery could seriously damage stocks.

"It's not just an environmental travesty, but a cultural one as well," he said of the commercial fishery.

Dan Bate, a spokesman for DFO, said in an e-mail that: "Science forecasts have shown that the Pacific herring stock abundance continues to support modest commercial harvest opportunities while meeting DFO's conservation objectives."

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He stated that while DFO respects the right to protest, "the Department condemns any threat of violence or reprisal against those exercising their right to practice a lawful and sustainable fishery."

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