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First nation plans second geoduck fishery protest

Geoduck is a lucrative shellfish crop in Vancouver Island's Kulleet Bay, but the Stz'uminus First Nation is threatening to blockade the fishery in a dispute over harvesting rights.

rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

A Vancouver Island first nation is threatening to disrupt the geoduck fishery again, saying it will use a flotilla of boats to make it too dangerous for divers to harvest the ugly but profitable shellfish if the federal government reopens the area for commercial activity.

"Our community has just become so frustrated that they asked us to stand up for what they feel is rightfully theirs," said Stz'uminus chief councillor John Elliott.

The water-blockade tactic was first tested when the fishery opened early this month. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans halted commercial activity for safety reasons, concerned the boats would damage the airlines divers use while digging for the clams.

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The first nation wants full control over a small section of Kulleet Bay extending from Coffin Point to Yellow Point, and is disputing what the community saw as a lack of consultation before the fishery was opened to commercial divers this year.

Licensed divers have been fishing geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) in traditional Coast Salish territory for 30 years. Geoducks, often called elephant-trunk clams, are large burrowing bivalves easily identified by their long, fleshy, phallic neck that protrudes from an oval-shaped shell.

Divers are allowed to haul in 62,500 pounds of geoduck from B.C.'s waters every year. The clams fetch an average of $10 a pound, said DFO biologist Erin Wylie. They grow in abundance in the northern Pacific, and are largely exported to China.

The first nation intends to ask the province for sole control over the geoduck fishery in the area, and is upset the waters were opened to commercial divers this year, Mr. Elliott said.

"It's a frustrating process because the fishery is so lucrative and we can't seem to get a foot in the door," he said.

The fishery may reopen within days, and if that happens, the Stz'uminus will do whatever they can - including a water-based blockade - to keep fishermen out, the chief said.

"There will be no fishing in our area, so we will do what's in our means to stop the fishery, and that could get a little out of hand," he said. "It just leaves it all open for something to go terribly wrong."

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Ms. Wylie disputes the claim that the Stz'uminus were not consulted. She said the community had a chance to provide feedback on a plan to harvest geoduck presented in October, but did not.

The fishery is also managed stringently, with harvest areas opened only once every three years, when divers are allowed to collect 5.4 geoduck for every 100 in the water, which ensures the future viability of the stocks if the first nation eventually gets tenure, Ms. Wylie said.

The promise of continued protest and potential danger does not sit well with James Austin, president of the Underwater Harvesters Association.

"It's inflammatory and it's actually a threat," he said, adding that it could set a dangerous precedent for other coastal first nations.

"Fisheries can't be managed this way. There's a fisheries department for managing the fishery and there has to be some confidence that the fisheries department is doing a good job," he said.

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