Category Archives: Fisheries

LNG plants do kill salmon, Russian scientists warn BC

A BC sockeye salmon spawning (Stan Probocsz/Watershed Watch)
A BC sockeye salmon spawning (Stan Probocsz/Watershed Watch)

The red flags keep popping up for BC’s vaunted LNG plans. Last week, Shell became the latest company to put its final investment decision for a proposed plant in Kitimat on hold due to the collapse of the global export market. This week, a draft federal environmental report on Petronas’ proposed Lelu Island project – while not going far enough, critics charge – confirms it would carry “significant adverse environmental effects”, including climate issues. Now, a group of Russian scientists is kicking off a tour of northern BC to warn British Columbians about the very real impacts these projects can have on wild salmon.

None of this has fazed LNG’s biggest cheerleader, Christy Clark, who maintains her Liberal government is “sticking to its guns” on LNG. One can only hope such statements don’t prove literal, with the plethora of aboriginal resistance camps and a growing citizen movement to block her plans. Our premier may not heed these warnings, but British Columbians who care about preserving our already beleaguered salmon runs would do well to.

LNG plant likely connected declining salmon run

Three Russian scientists and a noted conservationist speak from direct experience when they caution us about the effects these plants can have on wild salmon. The group hails from Sakhalin Island, which, according to a media release on a talk they’re giving today, is “the only place in the world that has an existing LNG facility operating in a wild salmon estuary.”

The project, built in 2009 by Shell but now operated by Russian energy giant Gazprom, has coincided with a “severe decline” of what was once the third largest pink salmon run in the world, in Avina Bay. They’ve studied the situation extensively and are here to report on their findings – namely that the collapse can be attributed to activities associated with the plant, including dredging, light, and noise pollution. They see the potential for a repeat of these unfortunate circumstances if the Trudeau government approves Petronas’ project, which sits amidst vital estuary habitat for Skeena River salmon.

Russian project similar to Lelu Island

Sakhalin Island and Lelu Island have two things in common – wild salmon and LNG. My Canadian colleagues invited me, along with three Russian scientists, to share our experience of the environmental impacts of the Sakhalin II LNG project, which has been in operation for 10 years on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean”, said Dimitry Lisitsyn, member of the Russian delegation and Director of Sakhalin Environment Watch.

[quote]We have a chance to help the people of the Skeena watershed protect one of the most famous and rich wild salmon sanctuaries in the world. With the dramatic decline of our wild salmon, I really hope this will not be replicated in the Skeena estuary. [/quote]

These concerns echo those raised by independent scientists, local First Nations and conservation groups since details of the project emerged several years ago. A report paid for by the proponent, which dismissed concerns about impacts on wild salmon, has come under heavy criticism as junk science.

The Russian scientists, at the invitation of First Nations and conservation groups in the Skeena region, will present their concerns and science to a number of communities across the north and in Vancouver over the next week.

Federal review needs to address salmon

Meanwhile, conservation groups and First Nations have voiced concerns with the recently published draft environmental report from the federal review panel for ignoring salmon issues, though it did tackle the carbon footprint of the project and impacts on other marine life, particularly harbour porpoises. Opponents of the project are pressing for the final report to include these salmon concerns – a plea which should be buoyed by the Russian scientists’ visit.


Much to be learned from girls’ soccer and fish farm sponsorship debacle

Fourteen-year-old Freyja Reed talks to reporters (Alexandra Morton/Facebook)
Fourteen-year-old Freyja Reed talks to reporters (Alexandra Morton/Facebook)

Freyja Reed’s October 29th dismissal from the U-15 Riptide girl’s soccer team in the Comox Valley was the culmination of complexities arising from the arrival of a new sponsor for the league, Marine Harvest Canada, BC’s largest operator of net-pen salmon farms. So began Freyja’s principled refusal to refrain from making critical comments about the ecological damage caused by salmon farming. The resulting controversy received repeated local and national media coverage, becoming a public relations disaster for Marine Harvest.

This was not what Marine Harvest intended. Ian Roberts, its spokesperson, said his corporation’s contributions to community groups “have not, and will not, and will never, direct a recipient’s right to voice their opinions or their ability to speak freely,” adding that “the disagreement with one member’s family is an internal matter between the club and the family.”

A social justice issue

Sean Arbour, the chair of the Riptide Steering Committee said that Freyja’s criticism had created a “bad spot” for the players and parents, that required her dismissal, noting:

[quote]At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.[/quote]

If only the issue were so simple. The controversy is now about social justice, with other overtones that invite exploration — exactly what Marine Harvest was trying to avoid by sponsoring the eight Tier-2 teams of the league.

The decision to dismiss Freyja from the team was conveniently made by the Riptide Steering Committee, a move that seemed to absolve Marine Harvest of any direct responsibility. But the corporation is implicated, at least indirectly. Such corporate sponsorship is intended to seem altruistic and uncontroversial. But the real objective is to elevate the profile of the corporation as a respectable member of the community — with a subtle but implicit quid pro quo — we will support you, if you support us.

What is Marine Harvest buying?

Leveraging community support for the controversial practice of salmon farming explains why, as the CBC News noted, “the company sponsors more than 100 community organizations on Vancouver Island, including sports for young people.” For its part, Ian Roberts said he believes it’s legitimate for the soccer association to ask parents not to “speak ill” of the club and its policies. (The Reeds were criticizing the practices of the sponsor, not the club.) Furthermore, explained Roberts, Marine Harvest “provides youth an opportunity to not only participate in sports but participate at a reasonable cost” — a “cost” that would seem to be the suppression of critical thinking and the forfeiture of free expression.

The CBC News coverage placed this “cost” under the heading of “corporate opportunism”. And Dr. Margot Young, a University of BC law professor who specializes in gender discrimination in sports, concluded that, “[Freyja] is being muzzled. To say: ‘You give up soccer or you give up free speech’ is outrageous.” Although, as Dr. Young added, free expression under the Charter does not apply to sport teams or corporations.

Bad optics

But the optics for Marine Harvest are terrible when the ambitions of a talented 14-year-old girl are being thwarted because of a corporation already steeped in environmental controversy.

Sports are about fairness, ethics and principles, qualities that Freyja obviously had in abundance before she got entangled with Marine Harvest. Maybe her standards are too high for any of their teams.


Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuu-chah-nulth join forces to protect herring

Former Council of the Haida Nation President Guujaaw (left) and Heiltsuk resource management director Kelly Brown at last week's Peace Treaty celebration (Damien Gillis)
Former Council of the Haida Nation President Guujaaw (left) and Heiltsuk resource management director Kelly Brown at last week’s peace treaty celebration in Bella Bella (Damien Gillis)

Three powerful coastal First Nations are banding together to protect Pacific herring – a marine resource integral to all of their cultures. The Nuu-chah-nulth of West Vancouver Island and the Haida today signed onto a declaration by the Heiltsuk Nation of BC’s central coast to defend herring against unsustainable commercial fisheries.

“Today, we have taken the first step in what will be a long and important journey,” said kil tlaats ’gaa Peter Lantin, President of the Haida Nation.

[quote]This declaration is a commitment by our Nations to collaboratively protect herring stocks using our traditional laws. Our success in implementing this declaration will benefit all British Columbians by ensuring the health of the herring, and by extension, every species that depends on them.[/quote]

Council of the Haida Nation President Peter Lantin stood in solidarity with Heitlsuk protestors outside of Canfisco - a key processing plant for commercially caught herring - in March (Dan Pierce)
Council of the Haida Nation President Peter Lantin standing in solidarity with Heitlsuk protestors outside of Canfisco – a key processing plant for commercially caught herring (Dan Pierce)

The signing comes amid the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Ottawa and on the heels of a seminal potlatch in Bella Bella last week during which the Haida and Heiltsuk celebrated a historic Peace Treaty between their two nations. The president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, Debra Foxcroft, joined in the festivities too, along with hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, each of whom vowed to work together to protect indigenous title and rights and the environment in the face of intense pressure for industrial development.

“For decades our herring have been overfished and mismanaged by the DFO,” said Foxcroft on signing the herring declaration. “The last two years have been particularly contentious.  Just when it looked like herring in our territories were starting to recover, the Minister decided to open our territories to commercial roe herring fisheries in 2014, contrary to the recommendation of the Minister’s own senior staff in DFO to keep our territories closed until the herring recovered.

“The Minister acted on her own accord, and in doing so forced our Nations to go to court to protect herring in our territories…We seek a new way of doing business with Canada that will properly manage herring as they try to rebuild.”

Declaration follows intense standoff, legal battles

While the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth were able to halt planned commercial fisheries in their territories this past Spring through the courts, the Heiltsuk had to take to the waters and occupy the local DFO office to protect herring stocks. The result was an intense standoff, documented in these pages, which saw the gillnet fishery scrapped – but only after a stealth seine opening by DFO during which commercial boats scooped up 680 tonnes of herring from Spiller Channel in Area 7.

Even with the pressure of the DFO occupation and the backing of other nations like the Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth for province-wide protests, it was ultimately the lack of available fish that forced the gillnet fleet to depart empty-hulled – vindicating First Nations’ and independent scientists’ contention that a commercial fishery is unsustainable at this point.

Fighting for a sustainable alternative

Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson reels some unique "spawn on bough" roe (Ian McAllister)
Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson reels some unique “spawn on bough” roe (Ian McAllister)

The Heiltsuk and other coastal nations employ a sustainable fishery in which herring lay their prized roe on kelp and hemlock boughs, swimming free to spawn another day. By contrast, the commercial seine and gillnet fisheries capture and kill millions of herring just to harvest roe from a small percentage of mature female fish. “Our nation has a proven Aboriginal right to fish and harvest spawn-on-kelp and it is our responsibility to ensure this fishery remains sustainable,” explained Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation.

“This Declaration provides guidance on effective legal and policy frameworks that will ensure that we, as stewards of our lands and waters, continue to protect our resources for future generations.”

The Heiltsuk are currently in negotiations with DFO for a co-management agreement that could help to ease tensions in advance of next year’s herring season.

The untold story behind the herring fishery fiasco

The untold story behind the central coast herring fishery fiasco

Herring gillnet boats outside Kitasu Bay just before giving up on this year's fishery (Tavish Campbell)
Herring gillnet boats outside Kitasu Bay before giving up on this year’s fishery (Tavish Campbell/Pacific Wild)

This is the untold story behind one of the most heated standoffs over fish which the BC coast has ever witnessed – the recent clash between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Heiltsuk Nation over the central coast herring fishery. After spending the better part of two weeks amid the conflict in Bella Bella and surrounding areas, I feel the convoluted affair – and its complex ecological, cultural and political implications – merits a deeper analysis.

Falling on deaf ears: Heiltsuk leaders plead their case to gillnet fishermen - to no avail (Tavish Campbell)
Falling on deaf ears: Heiltsuk leaders plead their case to gillnet fishermen – to no avail (Tavish Campbell/Pacific Wild)

On the surface, the reason the gillnet fleet left the central coast this past week, without the herring it had come for, is simple: There weren’t enough fish to sustain a commercial fishery – which is precisely what the local Heiltsuk Nation and independent scientists had been warning DFO all along. But don’t expect the hapless regulator to admit this obvious fact. Instead, it held onto the idea of a gillnet fishery to the bitter end.

Even after the fleet had pulled up stakes, DFO refused to bow to First Nations’ demands and formally close the fishery in Area 7. Only through emails to reporters much later did they finally acknowledge it was closed.

Caught on tape

A radio transmission from one gillnet captain to his counterparts, recorded by Pacific Wild – a conservation organization that has been documenting the central coast fishery – tells the tale. The conversation occurred on the herring grounds outside of Kitasu Bay, where the gillnetters had been granted an opening by DFO but simply couldn’t justify dropping their nets for a lack of fish. Here’s what the captain told his fellow fishermen:

[quote]It’s starting to cost everybody a bunch of money and if there’s no sizeable body of fish anywhere other than Higgins – I mean if you don’t see anything outside there, it ain’t gonna materialize out of nowhere now. You know, if there’s nothing sizeable then maybe we should all put our heads together and decide whether we want to continue this bullshit or pack it in.[/quote]

And that is precisely what they wound up doing soon thereafter (East Higgins – in the Heiltsuk’s declared Area 7 no-go zone would not prove to have the herring necessary for a fishery, despite remaining on the table, according to DFO, right to the end of this saga). But the boats did not leave because DFO told them to – this is an important distinction. As this transmission reflects, they left because there was simply no point carrying on.

> Listen to gilllnet fisherman’s communication – April 1, 2015:

Seiners clear out fishery

Industry voices may counter that there were fish in a few places kept off-limits by DFO and First Nations, but that’s an unfair criticism. For a several week period, all of Area 8 and virtually all of areas 6 and 7 – with a few tiny exemptions ultimately made for traditional Heiltsuk and Kistasoo/Xaixais food fish spots, such as Kitasu Bay – were open for fishing. It is a sad commentary on the state of the herring fishery that its success hinges on a single bay.

The fact of the matter is the seine fleet that took approximately 680 tonnes in an unannounced fishery in Spiller Channel essentially hoovered up what few viable fish there were (herring need to be of a certain size – roughly 20-plus centimetres in length – in order for the roe to be worthwhile). Even the seiners couldn’t achieve their own quota. In the wake of that fishery, nothing was left for the gillnetters, not to mention the Heiltsuk’s traditional fishery, which will likely suffer too.

For years, the Heiltsuk, backed by independent scientists, had been warning DFO about the lack of abundant stocks – to no avail. And when the department opened the sneak fishery in Spiller on March 22, it set off a bitter conflict that led the Heiltsuk to occupy the fisheries office near Bella Bella one week later.

As the days passed, a pattern emerged: DFO assured media they were in “discussions” with the Heiltsuk, but conference call after conference call failed to yield a solution. DFO would not bend and close Area 7.

The “Doctrine of Priority”

Herring spawning along the shoreline of Spiller Inlet (Tavish Campbell) Herring spawning along the shoreline of Spiller Inlet (Tavish Campbell)
Herring spawning (Tavish Campbell/Pacific Wild)

Now, a word about the complex world of herring fisheries. There are multiple types of herring fisheries on the central coast, each with different implications for conservation and informed by a landmark Supreme Court case called the Gladstone Decision of 1996. What that case essentially found is that the Heiltsuk had been engaged in their own commercial herring fishery since before contact and therefore maintain those rights today. It also established a “doctrine of priority” which laid out the order in which fish should be allocated by DFO.

The first priority is conservation, followed by the aboriginal right to food, social and ceremonial fish (FSC), then an aboriginal commercial fishery, and finally, after all those needs have been satisfied – and only if the stocks are healthy enough to justify it – a non-aboriginal commercial fishery.

DFO ignores the courts

Those who would seek to racialize the issue do so out of ignorance. To suggest that the Heiltsuk occupation of the DFO office and vow to stop the gillnet fishery “by any means necessary” is somehow lawless behaviour is inherently hypocritical. The Heiltsuk position is in fact entirely in line with the laws and jurisprudence of Canada – it is DFO which disrespected these institutions.

The Gladstone Decision is very clear about the allocation of fishing rights. The Heiltsuk, based on the historical record and the Constitution Act have first dibs. That’s not a value judgment – it’s a fact. In applying wrong-headed forecasting models to the fishery and ignoring Heiltsuk rights, DFO pitted aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishermen against each other, then stood back and did nothing to rectify the mess of their own making.

A different kettle of fish

Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson reels some unique "spawn on bough" roe (Ian McAllister)
Heiltsuk fisherman Jordan Wilson pulls in some unique spawn on hemlock roe (Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild)

There’s also a big difference between the commercial seine and gillnet fisheries and the traditional way the Heiltsuk do their food and commercial fisheries. The non-aboriginal commercial fishery is a “kill fishery”. The target in all cases is the precious roe – not so much the fish itself, which is used for pet food, bait or fish farm feed. Both seiners and gillnets scoop up the whole herring just for the roe. At one time this held immense value in Japanese fish markets for sushi. But today, prices are a fraction of what they once were, as the market is sitting on a huge backlog of frozen roe.

By contrast, the Heiltsuk employ a technique called spawn on kelp (SOK) for their FSC and commercial fisheries. Heiltsuk fishermen and families attach kelp to long lines and buoys and set them amidst the herring spawn. Some of the billions of eggs lain by the small fish deposit on the kelp and are then harvested. Another more boutique method involves tying hemlock boughs off the shoreline into the water, where herring roe also collects (my personal favourite, with the added bouquet of the forest).

The big difference is that with the SOK fishery, the herring aren’t killed, and swim free to spawn another day – making this a more sustainable fishery amidst depleted stocks.

DFO’s fuzzy math

Retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk (Damien Gillis)
Retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk

In a typical healthy year, central coast First Nations would be allocated around 1750 tonnes of herring, with the non-aboriginal commercial fishery receiving something on the same order. But if there aren’t enough fish, then the commercial fishery is supposed to be closed and the Heiltsuk may even see their own allocation pared back for conservation purposes. According to retired DFO herring scientist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk, that’s precisely what should have happened this year.

Tanasichuk explained to me how DFO arbitrarily doubles its herring counts from the previous season, resulting in the over-allocation of fish:

[quote]The forecasting methodology that DFO uses now for central coast herring is actually quite flawed…DFO’s forecasts are likely twice as much as they should be.[/quote]

Numbers set in stone

The Heiltsuk presented Dr. Tanasichuk’s alternate calculations to DFO in a last-ditch meeting with Regional Director General Sue Farlinger this past Tuesday, but to no avail. Another problem with the department’s forecasting is that it’s set in stone once determined in September for the following year’s fishery. There is no mechanism by which to adapt allocations based on in-season soundings and observations from the actual fishery as it’s happening. Typical bureaucratic nonsense.

Dr. Tanisichuk’s alternate modelling predicted just over 14,000 tonnes of herring on the central coast this year (10% of which are available for a fishery) – about half of DFO’s forecasting. And guess what? Based on averaging out in-season soundings, he appears to have been right on the money. But this meant nothing to DFO.

Better call Ottawa

Farlinger flew out to Bella Bella on March 30 for emergency meetings following the Heiltsuk seizure of the DFO office. By most accounts, she did her level best to advance their concerns, securing agreements with the Heiltsuk to improved stock assessments and cultural training for local officers. But as for the big issue over closing Area 7, Farlinger maintained she did not have the authority to make a decision – which only compounded Heiltsuk frustrations with the federal government.

“It is my intention to avoid at all costs a fishery in Area 7,” Farlinger told a gathering of upset Heiltsuk members outside the occupied fisheries office. Yet, she added:

[quote]I’m not in a position to unilaterally say, ‘No fishery will happen in Area 7.'[/quote]

Instead, she told the community that she spent hours on the phone to her higher-ups in Ottawa, who plainly wouldn’t budge.

The incredible, shrinking DFO

In the end, as the gillnetters departed the central coast empty-handed, DFO would prefer that the public remained in the dark about what just happened up in Bella Bella.

And it shouldn’t. Herring are the building block of life on the BC coast. They need time to rebuild.

DFO should learn from this year’s herring fishery fiasco, start listening to scientists and working with the Heiltsuk to ensure a sustainable fishery for the future of herring and the ecosystems and coastal communities that depend on them.

Heiltsuk Nation occupies DFO office in face of expected herring fishery

Heiltsuk Nation occupies DFO office in face of expected herring fishery

Heiltsuk Nation occupies DFO office in face of expected herring fishery
Heiltsuk Nation members confront DFO officers at Denny Island coast guard station (Pacific Wild)


Updated 7 PM

Tensions continue to escalate on the waters of the Great Bear Rainforest over a highly controversial herring fishery, as members of the Heiltsuk Nation are now occupying the local DFO office in opposition to a planned gillnet opening.

A group of Heiltsuk youth, elders and chiefs paddled and boated this afternoon from Bella Bella to the coast guard station on nearby Denny Island  – headquarters of DFO’s central coast operations – to deliver an eviction notice reminding local representatives that Area 7 is a no-go zone for a commercial herring fishery this year.

The delegation stripped DFO of a ceremonial paddle which had been given to local officers before in good faith. “You cannot have that,” youth leader Saul Brown told DFO representatives, “because you’re not here in a good way anymore.”

“You’re not conducting yourselves in a way that is sustainable for our future generations, so this is our children and youth saying, ‘We’re going to take that paddle back.'”

Following  the demonstration, a conference call between Tribal Council leaders and DFO Regional Director General Sue Farlinger failed to yield a diplomatic solution to the ongoing conflict.

As of 6 PM, Heiltsuk Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett and Kelly Brown, Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Dept. had joined the occupation of DFO’s offices, where they plan to stay through the night.

DFO inciting physical confrontation: Brown

“DFO has forced us into a collision course with industry,” Chair of the Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation Frank Brown explained over the phone from the occupied DFO office. 

[quote]If they allow gillnets into Area 7, they’re basically condoning a physical confrontation.[/quote]

Heiltsuk youth leader Saul Brown takes back a ceremonial paddle from DFO officers (Colin Jones/facebook)

Today’s conflict follows a week of high tensions between the First Nation and DFO over the controversial herring fishery. Last Sunday, DFO angered the Heiltsuk by opening a seine fishery amid depleted herring stocks in Area 7 without informing them.

A Thursday press release from the nation vowed to stop a gillnet fishery “by any means necessary” after DFO refused to close the door to a subsequent gillnet fishery during talks with Heiltsuk leaders in Vancouver Wednesday.

The Heiltsuk have declared Area 7 a no-go zone to a commercial herring fishery due to concerns over the health of local stocks and allegations of flawed science by veteran scientists – including retired DFO herring specialist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk, who notes:

[quote]The forecasting methodology that DFO uses now for central coast herring is actually quite flawed…DFO’s forecasts are likely twice as much as they should be.[/quote]

With DFO digging in its heels, a gillnet opening could come within the next day,  in which ase, “We will escalate from occupying the station to being out on the herring grounds,” said Frank Brown.

“We’ve done everything we can. We have to hold strong.”

Update: As of 6:30 PM, DFO is stating that a gillnet opening would likely take place to the north in Kitasu Bay, the territory of the Kitasoo/Xaixais Nation – who have also closed their territory and Area 6 to the fishery and stand in solidarity with their Heiltsuk neighbours.

First Nation taking herring concerns to Jimmy Pattison's Canfisco today

First Nation taking herring concerns to Jimmy Pattison’s Canfisco

First Nation taking herring concerns to Jimmy Pattison's Canfisco today
Commercial seine boat in Spiller Channel (Pacific Wild)

Bella Bella, BC

A delegation of Heiltsuk First Nations and their supporters will be taking the central coast community’s concerns over a recent herring fishery in their territory to to the Jimmy Pattison-owned Canfisco processing plant in Vancouver this afternoon.

Pattison is the largest owner of commercial herring licences and boats in BC, many of which took part in a highly controversial herring seine opening on Sunday and Monday in Spiller Channel, near Bella Bella. Heiltsuk members were caught by off guard when DFO opened the commercial seine fishery Sunday night without advising them first. The community had declared its territory closed to the commercial herring kill fishery this year due to concerns of the health of the stock.

Retired DFO herring specialist Dr. Ron Tanasichuk concurs with the Heiltsuk’s concerns, noting:

[quote]The forecasting methodology that DFO uses now for central coast herring is actually quite flawed…DFO’s forecasts are likely twice as much as they should be.[/quote]

On that basis, Tanasichuk agrees there should have been no commercial fishery this year. “The stocks are in recovery,” said Heiltsuk legal services coordinator Carrie Humchitt during the opening in Spiller Channel, “but they haven’t reached a level of recovery that can allow this kind of fishing to occur.”

“Our community was misled,” noted Chief Counsellor Marilyn Slett on the manner in which DFO openend the fishery. “We weren’t treated in good faith by DFO.”

Now, as seiners begin delivering their cargo to Canfisco’s Vancouver dock, Heiltsuk members living in Vancouver will make their concerns known to the fishing giant. They are calling on supporters to join them at 3 pm today at Canfisco, on Vancouver’s downtown waterfront.

A parallel rally will be held in Bella Bella this afternoon as well.

DFO uses stealth to open herring fishery despite First Nations ban

DFO uses stealth to open herring fishery despite First Nations ban

DFO uses stealth to open herring fishery despite First Nations ban
Heiltsuk Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt in 2012 (Damien Gillis)

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans angered members of the Heiltsuk First Nation on BC’s central coast by opening a commercial herring fishery last night – despite the community’s insistence that there should be no fishery this year, based on unhealthy stocks.

“This action shows blatant disrespect of aboriginal rights by DFO and industry,” said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett.

[quote]DFO provided inconsistent and misleading communications throughout the day and did not attempt meaningful consultation.[/quote]

The nation is also suggesting that DFO employed deceptive tactics to launch the fishery, waiting until commercial seine boats had their nets in the water before officially alerting the Heiltsuk by email that this year’s fishery – in the highly contested Area 7 – was going ahead.

Stocks not ready for commercial fishery

The Heiltsuk contend that low herring stocks do not justify a commerical fishery. “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 the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. Hereditary Chief Harvey Humchitt believes more time is needed for herring to rebound from a recent crash before reopening a commercial fishery. “We experienced the collapse of the herring twice over the past fifty years. These collapses are attributed to Western science,” noted Humchitt. “The herring are now beginning to recover.”

Their concerns are echoed by retired DFO herring specialist Ron Tanasichuk, who concurs that DFO is using flawed modelling to estimate the health of herring stocks. “With their current methods, DFO is essentially inflating estimates of herring on the Central Coast by double,” says Tanasichuk.

Constitutional issue

The nation’s right to a unique spawn on kelp (SOK) fishery – which doesn’t involve catching herring, but rather collecting roe lain on kelp – was cemented in the Gladstone Supreme Court decision.

“The Heiltsuk Nation views this opening as an unjustifiable infringement upon our right to our SOK fishery, a right which was won in the Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Gladstone,” stated William Gladstone, chief negotiator of the Gladstone Reconciliation.

[quote]We cannot risk another collapse. Our future generations depend upon this resource for food, social and ceremonial purposes, as well as employment and spiritual and cultural wellness.[/quote]

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union is backing the Heiltsuk position, advising gillnet fishers not to fish the Central Coast.

RCMP boats have been stationed in the area since last week, in anticipation of tensions over the DFO opening. “Heiltsuk boats are on the water to protest as the Nation works toward achieving a peaceful resolution to the situation,” said a press release from the nation early this morning. “We may have lost this battle, but the war is far from over,” said Gladstone.

Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat

Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat

Tide may be turning on farms destroying salmon habitat
A coho spawning in a small stream (Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

I come today in praise of the Vancouver Sun and trust that events don’t prove that I should’ve approached the mainstream media with my usual skepticism.

First, let me tell you a story from my early life which you may have heard and, if so, please bear with me.

Coho spawn in the darndest places

When I was a young lad, my friend Denis and I used to bicycle down to the Musqueam Indian reserve and fish two tiny creeks, one which we called Tin Can Creek, more properly known as Musqueam Creek.

With shiner lines, a tiny hook and a bit of worm, we would catch small cutthroat trout and, as with all young boys, rejoice at every second.

At Tin Can Creek, one day, a First Nations lad with a gaff came along, bent down over the edge and scooped out a fish which must’ve run 5 or 6 pounds at least. We were thunderstruck! If we’d known there were fish that size in the creek, it might’ve scared us out of fishing it!

Moments later, and a bit further upstream, the lad did the same thing.

This taught me a lesson of a lifetime. These were coho salmon and this tiny creek contained their spawning ground. For those unschooled in these matters, the coho salmon is the second largest of the seven Pacific salmon* which inhabit our waters, and in my opinion is the most beautiful; certainly it’s very sought after as a sports fish and considered a delicacy by those who like eating fish.

It must be noted that thanks to the careful stewardship of the Musqueam Nation, this run has survived and prospered – a rarity indeed in Greater Vancouver.

As I grew older and got more involved in fishing and later in governments dealing with fishing, I learned that the coho is unique in that it doesn’t spawn in great numbers in rivers and lakes but in small runs in tiny streams and even ditches all up and down our coast. I learned too that the reason the coho was an endangered species in the Salish Sea area was loss of habitat due to agricultural practices and land development.

Farmers try to make a amends for habitat destruction


A front page article of Monday, December 29 in the Vancouver Sun tells how the paper’s “Minding The Farm” series – probing fish-bearing creeks on farms and activities by landowners which have damaged habitat – prompted some farmers to attempt habitat “remediation” on their properties.

One does not, unfortunately, gain the impression that the farmers are very enthusiastic about this program. To them, the creeks are no doubt a nuisance and very much get in the way of their normal farming activities. This is compounded, I’m sure, by the fact that some drainage ditches have even become spawning grounds.

The major culprit is waste. When this seeps into the creeks, it kills the fish, as simple as that.

Fish an “inconvenience” to farmers

Since I first learned of the problem it was obvious that farmers weren’t about to take a few fish in a creek seriously. They were no different than real estate developers who would report that there were only a “few fish” in the creek and therefore needn’t concern anyone.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has been extremely slow off the mark over the years and has hesitated to charge anyone. (This longtime observer smells political interference). One fisheries officer, quoted in the article, showed his frustration by asking:

[quote]What does it take to get charged? You really have to try hard.[/quote]

One stream at a time

The question is one of overall public good. While it doesn’t seem a huge sacrifice to allow a handful of fish to be killed in a stream, to accommodate agriculture or a new suburb, the aggregate of such losses is unacceptable. Therefore, the solution is a step-by-step, small stream by small stream business – hard to implement, even harder to enforce.

We quickly run into the phrases “remedial measures” and the weasel word of all, “mitigation”. I do not regard a culvert or a re-created stream as either remedial or mitigating. Nor do fish biologists.

The basic decision the public must make is whether it’s worth it to save these small runs of fish. The Vancouver Sun believes that it is worth it and I agree with them.

A moral question

This question can’t be measured in dollars and cents – at least it ought not to be. One can always find a monetary reason to destroy things. The issue is, of course, monetary in the sense that progeny of these runs do supply sports and commercial fisherman, thus generating revenue – and it does cost money to preserve streams.

But can we, in all conscience, permit the destruction of salmon runs, however big or small, for any reason? Once we decide to destroy things for money, it is a slippery slope and we become cynics, for, as Oscar Wilde observed:

[quote]A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.[/quote]

The Pacific Salmon is what identifies British Columbia the world over. I don’t think it goes too far to say that it is sacred – the soul of our province.

It gets down to this: If British Columbians won’t protect and enhance the symbol of what our lovely home is all about, who will?

*Chinook, Coho, Chum, Sockeye, Pink, Rainbow (Steelhead) and Cutthroat.

Banner Salmon Year 2014

Missing fish farms offer clue to anticipated 70 million sockeye return


Banner Salmon Year 2014

Expect big salmon numbers this summer. The Fraser sockeye run may be as high as 70 million. Yes, 70. And the most important sport angling species, chinook and coho, seem to be on the same meteoric route in 2014.

Fraser sockeye numbers peaked in the early 1970s and then declined, most particularly in the 20 year period from 1990 to 2009. This was the year the Cohen Commission was sent in to figure out why only 1.6 million sockeye returned to the Fraser, and just as it was getting rolling, 2010 returned more than 28.3 million Fraser sockeye (see video here).

[quote]The 2014 range is: 7.2 million to 72.0 million, with an average of 22.8 million, with expectations at the high end.[/quote]

Method in DFO’s madness

While DFO has significant issues (including almost completely ignoring the Cohen Report), it has to be admitted it does a stellar job of sockeye science, and I have the approved pre-season estimate of the more than 100 subcomponent sockeye run from early May into late September for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in this science heavy process (download .pdf DFO 2014 sockeye forecast).

They have patchy data back to 1913, with better stats from the ‘50s to the present day. DFO uses four different models and puts out estimates based on five different levels of possible return from 10% to 90%. The 2014 range is: 7.2 million to 72.0 million, with an average of 22.8 million, with expectations at the high end.

Then DFO follows fry down rivers, for example, the Chilko counting fence, passing Mission and a seine fishery in the Strait of Georgia, with acoustic arrays in Queen Charlotte Sound as well as Juan de Fuca.

On the way back, test gillnetting is typically done in Port Renfrew as well as Johnstone St. Fish are counted crossing the Mission fence, and samples from all fisheries are sent for real-time DNA testing twice per week, with announcements on run timing, composition and fishing opportunities for commercial, sport and first nations coming every few days as summer progresses. Impressive.

Removal of fish farms may have contributed to big return

Why are the fish in good numbers? Good question. The 2010 high year contributes mostly to the run this year as sockeye are typically four year old fish on returning. It looks like the taking of fish farms producing chinook out of the water in the Discovery Islands (near Campbell River) in 2008 that were getting salmon leukemia virus (SLV) is one main reason – do note DFO followed this disease for years until they terminated research.

Doctors Kristi Miller and Brian Riddell will be ramping up Miller’s science lab, that you will remember showed a ‘viral signature’ disease that contributed to as high as 90% pre-spawn mortality in returning Fraser sockeye. But the 2010 fish were not infected, and thus returned and successfully spawned, resulting in, we hope, prodigious numbers, in 2014.

In addition, fish farms reduced their own fish numbers, particularly Marine Harvest, in 2011 to 2013 by 30% or 6- to 9-million smolts in the narrow Quadra Island to Sayward salt waters. So there were trillions fewer viral particles when the fry migrated.

Virus tests to continue

You will be happy to know that Miller/Riddell will be testing a lot of fish this year, including those from fish farms. But you won’t be so happy to know that DFO, and the fish farms will be parsing news releases – if you followed the convoluted, non-transparent, fish farm refusal to allow BC disease-testing results to come out during the Cohen Commission, you will understand why.

Of note, is one subcomponent that has done well – the Harrison. Its long term average escapement, i.e. sockeye on the spawning beds is 13,500, but both 2010 and 2011 returns were 30 times higher than the long term average at 400,000. The Harrisons are the only subcomponent that migrates out Juan de Fuca Strait where there are no fish farms. They could not get sick, so they returned in healthy numbers. The rest of the Fraser sockeye migrate through Johnstone Strait.

Chinook and coho could see monster year too

But there is more to this story than fish farms. That is because – other than the Fraser 4-2s that DFO, in the Salmon Outlook, said further 2014 non-retention would be likely – around Vancouver Island, the fish return numbers of coho and chinook will be records, too.

First, the sockeye story. The largest run is the Alberni Inlet, Henderson, Nahmint, and Somass (Stamp and Sproat) rivers which typically returns 350,000 to 600,000 fish, with a high of 1.8 million. Sport and commercial fishing begins when it is established 200,000 fish are coming down the Inlet. I have seen years the run has not struggled up to this level.

As with all runs, there are always some younger, sexually precocious male fish, called Jacks. In the past, as three-year fish, the Alberni run had an average of 40,000; however, last year, there were, get this, 400,000 mixed in with the run. That implies a 2014 run ten times larger than the average, perhaps 4 million this year.

From volcanoes to Pineapple Expresses

While the fry do pass a couple of fish farms on the way out, the huge number of Jacks implies that ocean survival has been terrific. Perhaps the Alaska volcano that blew in 2008 showering the Bering Sea with iron oxide heavy dust was the reason, but the more likely event is the winter storms we now call Pineapple Expresses contribute to the Aleutian low-pressure cycle. The wind pushes surface waters aside, bringing nutrients to the sun-penetrating level, starting huge plankton blooms that feed the food chain. Sockeye eat plankton and krill.

Higher marine survival typically means more three year old Jacks. As chinook, these return as roughly 15 pound fish. The West Coast Van Isle hatcheries at Conuma in Nootka Sound and the Nitinat in Juan de Fuca returned Jacks up to 50% of their runs – this was common among other counted rivers. I can tell you from fishing the Nitinat in late November – nursing five fractured ribs, which kept me from fishing earlier – I landed four Jacks one day, some six weeks after the run had spawned and gone. Some years I catch zero in the entire season, even though these fish will beat all other fish to whack a lure.

There are no fish farms on either of these routes. And then there are the Cowichan chinook. As 1- to 2-year fish, they circle Georgia Strait before migrating out to the open ocean. Last year 7,000 returned – this run was down to the unheard of level of 1,068 spawners circa 2010, with, previously, a run average of 12,000 to 15,000 chinook with a high of 25,000. Last year 4,000 of the returnees were 3-year old springs! This points to a return in 2014 of higher numbers than the highest ever recorded. Van Isle chinook typically return 90% at four year old fish, which implies 40,000 chinook for the Cowichan alone in 2014.

Mysterious coho raise more questions

And then there are coho. Last year WCVI wild coho returned in the Salmon Outlook’s highest measured category – 4. And those Georgia Strait coho, that crashed in the mid-80s, with 1- to 2-% return measured against parental spawners, are forecast at 15% – that means 15 fish for every fish that spawned in 2011, rather than 1. Many of these fish migrate past fish farms in the choked waters of Johnstone Strait. As farm numbers were down 30%, and ocean survival high, these two factors may explain the inside high coho numbers in 2014.

But it doesn’t explain high coho numbers on the WCVI. And they are expected to continue in high numbers in 2014. They don’t pass fish farms, hence, the return is based on higher marine survival.

There is great potential for inside coho fishing, now and in years to come. Brian Riddell, CEO, Pacific Salmon Foundation, is emphasizing rehabilitation projects to increase Georgia coho. He has estimated such a fishery could be worth $400- to $500-million additional sport fishing revenue, added to the $1 billion sport fishing creates in BC annually.

Time to fish.


Fisheries Critic questions habitat protection handover for pipelines

Fisheries Critic questions habitat protection handover for pipelines
An oil pipeline crossing the Tanana River in Alaska

The federal NDP’s BC-based deputy fisheries critic is questioning a quiet deal signed just before Christmas that saw the Department of Fisheries and Oceans hand over the protection of fish habitat and species at risk along energy pipelines to the National Energy Board.

“The Conservatives have gone too far,” says New Westminster–Coquitlam & Port Moody MP Fin Donnelly.

[quote]They have gutted the Fisheries Act, slashed DFO’s budget, launched an all-out attack on science, and now they have handed over the power to make decisions on the environment to a body whose mandate is to deal with pipeline and energy development.[/quote]

The NEB lacks the knowledge to properly assess fisheries issues, says Donnelly. “The federal government is still the only body with the jurisdiction and sufficient expertise to assess potential damage to fisheries.”

Deal snuck by over holidays

The deal slid under the radar amid an onslaught of major energy-related announcements involving the NEB over the holidays – including its conditional recommendation of the proposed Enbridge pipeline, its approval of four major liquefied natural gas (LNG) export licences, and receipt of Kinder Morgan’s formal application for a major oil pipeline expansion to Vancouver. All of these projects would experience a smoother ride with the watering down of DFO’s oversight of habitat alteration for pipeline construction.

Rather than making any legal changes to the Fisheries Act or Species at Risk Act, the deal came in the form of a “memorandum of understanding” between DFO and the NEB, making the Calgary-based energy regulator the point agency in determining whether aspects of a pipeline project could pose a risk to fish habitat or species at risk. Only then, in certain specific cases, would the NEB turn to DFO for what sounds very much like a rubber-stamped permit:

[quote]The NEB will assess a project application and determine if mitigation strategies are needed to reduce or prevent impacts to fish or fish habitat. If the project could result in serious harm for fish then the NEB will inform DFO that a Fisheries Act authorization under paragraph 35(2)(b)  is likely to be required. DFO will review and issue an authorization when appropriate, prior to project construction. Authorizations issued by DFO would relate to those watercourses impacted, not the entire project.[/quote]

“Streamlining” pipeline approvals

The memo clearly states the reason for its creation – part of the Harper Govenrment’s continued efforts to clear roadblocks to energy development:  “This MOU better integrates the Government of Canada’s initiative to streamline application processes by eliminating the requirement for duplicate reviews.”

“This clearly demonstrates the Conservative government’s complete lack of understanding of and regard for science in decision-making, and the importance of proper environmental assessment,” counters the NDP’s Donnelly.

DFO: Nothing fishy about deal

DFO issued a statement yesterday in response to concerns about the MOU, suggesting that the deal with the NEB is similar to previous collaborative agreements with provincial regulators. “Over the years, DFO has established similar arrangements with some Provinces and with Conservation Authorities,” the statement read. “In all cases, the standards for fisheries protection are established by DFO and the Fisheries Act Authorizations continue to be done by DFO.”

Yet the department strains belief in touting the NEB’s ability to protect fish habitat as well as DFO:

[quote]Our collaborative arrangement builds on the decades of training, experience and expertise of NEB biologists in assessing the potential environmental impacts of development projects, including regarding fish and fish habitat…The National Energy Board is best placed to deliver regulatory review responsibilities under the Fisheries Act for activities relating to federally regulated energy infrastructure (such as pipelines).[/quote]Ecojustice Executive Director Devon Page sees this as the latest in a long line of coordinated attacks on Canada’s environmental laws by the Harper Government. Says Page, “Taking authority for assessing harm to fish and their waters from fisheries experts and granting it to a pipeline approving body, after having vastly weakened of our laws through omnibus bills, is pretty much the straw that breaks the environment’s back when it comes to appropriate stewardship of the thousands of lakes, rivers and streams that are proposed to be bisected by pipelines.”