Heiltsuk celebrate as herring gillnet boats leave central coast empty – validating concerns over health of stocks
Video by Diana Chan
“We did it!” declared Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett to a jubilant crowd at the fisheries office near Bella Bella this afternoon, as the herring gillnet fleet departed the central coast empty.
“This was our no-go zone,” said Slett, holding up a map of Area 7 in Heiltsuk territory, “and nobody went there.”
The announcement marked the end of an intense standoff between the nation and DFO over a disputed herring fishery amid depleted central coast stocks. Slett and Heiltsuk resource stewardship director Kelly Brown – along with 50 or so community members – have been occupying DFO’s office since Sunday afternoon, following a stealth seine boat opening 10 days ago and plans to open a subsequent gillnet fishery.
The departure of the gillnet fleet over a lack of available fish – despite the greenlight to fish from DFO – validated Heiltsuk and independent scientists’ concerns over the health of local herring stocks. Even as the boats motored southward, DFO maintained its refusal to close Area 7 formally to the fishery.
The gillnetters had a recent opportunity to fish in nearby Area 6, outside of Kitasu Bay, but were stymied by a lack of abundance. All of Area 8, to the south, and the vast majority of Areas 6 and 7 were on the table, according to DFO, for a fishery – with only a few select traditional Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xaixais food fishing spots reserved – yet the only boats to pull herring out of the water this year were the seiners, who made off with approximately 680 tonnes.
Despite continued disagreement over Area 7, the Heiltsuk and DFO did secure several landmark agreements over improved stock assessments and mandatory cultural training for local DFO officers.