BC Coast 4: Activism

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Sustained winds 30 to 40 kts, rising to 60 to 80 in the evening. Rain, heavy at times…

As we were gearing up in the early-morning dark for another day of fishing, the crackly voice on the radio told us we should start making other plans. Especially if we wanted to make our flight home any time in the next three or four days. With a 17-foot aluminum skiff the only available transportation, and 30+ miles of open saltwater between us and home, it was suddenly a race to pack up and get out of Dodge before the front hit. So much for fishing.

The good news is that we beat the storm back to town, and managed to dig a nice boot-full of steamer clams along the way. More importantly, our hasty departure allowed us to spend some extra time with our hosts, the people of the Heiltsuk First Nation, as they scrambled to protest a surprise commercial herring harvest opened by Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

According to William Housty, Heiltsuk Coastwatch Director and cultural leader, scientific studies (by both independent researchers and DFO’s own biologists) show that herring stocks along the Central Coast are too depleted to allow a commercial fishery. The Heiltsuk and DFO had an agreement that the government would consult with Heiltsuk leaders before opening the fishery and give at least 24 hours notice before any opener.

Instead, knowing the Heiltsuk would protest, DFO opened the fishery without consultation or any warning whatsoever. Rumor had it that DFO didn’t even announce the opener by radio, but instead contacted the fishing fleet directly so the Heiltsuk protesters wouldn’t have time to organize.

An entire hotel building was rented, we were told, to a “private party,” which we soon discovered was a large number of black-clad RCMP officers sent in to “keep the peace.” But to me, it looked ominously like they were there to protect the commercial fishermen.

And yet, word went out throughout the Heiltsuk Nation, and protests materialized in a matter of hours. People dropped what they were doing and jumped onboard. Heiltsuk boats raced to the fishing grounds to protest in person, while other members occupied the DFO office nearby. While the protest was too late to stop the seine fishery, ultimately, the corporate fishing fleet and DFO gave in, sending the gillnet boats home empty. For up-to-date video on the herring conflict from Pacific Wild, click HERE.

The fact that DFO would ignore both Heiltsuk sovereignty and the best available science to hold this fishery on a depleted stock is just further proof that when the Harper government talks about “First Nations rights,” “listening to science” or “sustainability,” it’s a complete joke. And not a very funny one, at that.

For me, this was a steelhead trip that ended up being about much more. From the tremendous wealth of wild food, natural resources and culture protected by the Heiltsuk Nation, to their inspiring confrontations with those who seek to destroy it, I learned much. And I returned home more convinced than ever of the importance and value in protecting what we love.

If you want more info about Heiltsuk conservation and cultural programs, click HERE. They’re doing some amazing work with grizzly bears, salmon, youth-culture camps and other projects on the Central Coast of BC.

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