Herring roe BC

Heiltsuk’s decision to close fishery on B.C. coast amid COVID-19 earns international attention

Nation’s willingness to shut down lucrative spawn-on-kelp fishery stands in ‘stark contrast’ to other government decisions to push ahead with extractive industries during pandemic, according to letter published in Science

The Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) Nation’s cancellation of its financially and culturally important spawn-on-kelp fishery due to COVID-19 is in the international spotlight, with a letter by Canadian scientists and Haíɫzaqv resource managers appearing in the journal Science on Thursday. 

The letter states that the Haíɫzaqv approach presents a “stark contrast” to government and industry decisions to deem extractive industries as essential services. 

COVID-19 concerns have been raised at mines, hydro dams and oilsands camps, with B.C.’s Interior Health Authority linking 19 cases of COVID-19 to an outbreak at the Kearl Lake oilsands project.

“The Haíɫzaqv fishery closure demonstrates the effectiveness of informed, responsible decision-making by community members themselves,” the letter states. 

“It also demonstrates an alternative to centralized management approaches. State-led fisheries have faced criticism for making decisions that are isolated from the nuances of individual communities, for viewing resources through a narrow lens of stock productivity and extraction and for paying too little attention to complex social outcomes.”

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In April, Fisheries and Oceans Canada allowed fishing to continue but pulled at-sea observers from trawlers, reverting to electronic methods like video to monitor the industry. (Observers are now permitted, but not required, on vessels if safe working procedures are in place.)

The Haíɫzaqv Nation consulted with the 692 members who had signed up for the fishery in March before the hereditary and elected leadership decided to close it. The short fishery, which only lasts five to six days in March or April, is carried out by hanging lines of kelp upon which herring lay their eggs. The eggs — or roe — are harvested and the herring are unharmed.

“We’re going to protect ourselves, and we’re going to do that at any cost,” said Kelly Brown, director of the Haíɫzaqv Integrated Resource Management Department and one of the authors of the letter. 

The Haíɫzaqv suffered a major economic and cultural blow by closing the fishery, but Brown said they are hoping to “lead by example” in their cautious response to COVID-19.

Kelly Brown

Kelly Brown, director of the Haíɫzaqv Integrated Resource Management Department, says the security of Haíɫzaqv people is more important than money. Photo: Louise Whitehouse / The Narwhal

The letter notes the remote community’s limited medical capacity and the risk posed to Elders, “who comprise most of the remaining fluent speakers of Haíɫzaqva.”

The Haíɫzaqv won the right to have the spawn-on-kelp fishery after a hard-fought battle in the Supreme Court of Canada that proved they had practised a commercial fishery before the arrival of Europeans.  

In 2015, Haíɫzaqv citizens occupied a Fisheries and Oceans Canada office and successfully drove out a commercial herring gillnet fishery opening in Haíɫzaqv territory to protect herring from overkill. Protecting the fishery has been an act of protecting their sovereignty.

The fishery has also been a major source of revenue, exporting the roe to Japan. Brown said a member can make between $5,000 and $12,000 depending on the quality of the roe. But he said all the members agreed safety was more important.

“It’s never about the money,” he said. “Obviously we want security, but our people matter and we’re not going to leave them at risk for the sake of a dollar.” 

Keeping fishery closed also keeps visitors at bay

Brown said visitors, including those from the United States, have been trying to access Bella Bella via yachts and sailboats. The community will provide fuel and groceries by boat but won’t let anyone dock.

“We’re getting nervous,” Brown said.

More than 100 new COVID-19 cases in 72 hours were reported in B.C. on Monday, leading provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to warn people to exercise caution.

“We do have a possibility of having explosive growth in our outbreak here in B.C. if we’re not careful in how we progress over the summer,” Henry said on Monday.

Meanwhile, lodges on Haida Gwaii have reopened and the community reported its first COVID-19 case on July 18, despite the Haida Nation’s efforts to restrict visitors. The Haida Hereditary Chiefs’ Council has now said the Queen Charlotte Lodge “has lost its welcome” on Haida Gwaii. 

The sea remains a ‘safe place’ during tough times

Despite the cancelled fishery, Brown said people are spending a lot of time on the water harvesting for sustenance. 

Haíɫzaqv Councillor Louisa Jones-Housty grew up on the water and has been running her own boat with a crew of family members for the past four years. She said she’s still been out in her boat despite the chaos of the pandemic.

“It’s my safe place,” she said. “It’s where I want to be.”

Heiltsuk rising: inside the cultural resurgence of one B.C. First Nation

While the community has gotten by without a COVID-19 case, it has still been hit hard with two local businesses shutting down and 24 deaths in two and a half months unrelated to COVID-19. About 1,400 people live in Bella Bella.

“The big thing is mental wellness. This has impacted so many people in so many different ways,” she said. 

The number of deaths is overwhelming for the community and really brought home how devastating a COVID-19 outbreak could be when the small morgue was overwhelmed after four deaths in 24 hours.

“A lot of community members weren’t able to come back to say final goodbyes,” she said. “It’s so sad.”

But Jones-Housty said community members are sharing the load, fishing for those that don’t have boats and making sure “everyone’s freezers are full.”

She said she is looking forward to the day everyone can gather in their Big House, which was built last year and is the first one on the territory in 120 years

“Our culture is the basis of our life, our identity. We need to be there and gather our strength, and get strength from each other.”

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Steph Kwetásel'wet Wood is a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh journalist living and writing in North Vancouver. She writes stories about Indigenous rights, the…

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