A shot from part way under the water looking up at fishers harvesting roe from the side of their boat.

Photo Credit: Heiltsuk First Nation

Not Every Commercial Fishery is Destructive

The Heiltsuk harvest herring eggs attached to kelp without killing the fish, while the commercial sac roe fishery kills millions of fish to harvest their eggs

DFO has shut down the spawn-on-kelp fishery and the Heiltsuk Nation is pissed

The Heiltsuk Nation is fuming after Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced that they’re closing the commercial harvest of herring spawn on kelp (SOK) in Heiltsuk Territory.

The Heiltsuk’s herring spawn on kelp fishery uses an ancient, sustainable technique that doesn’t kill fish. Instead, they harvest herring eggs attached to branches and kelp without killing the fish. And theHeiltsuk only operate their fishery in years when the spawn is good.

It makes sense that DFO would want to protect herring. Herring is an extremely important species for other fish and marine mammals in the food chain.

But DFO is treating the Heiltsuk fishery like a regular commercial approach, which uses seine and gillnets to catch–and kill– millions of herring before they have laid their eggs. That practice is destructive and controversial and is blamed for the massive drop in herring on the west coast.

And making the situation worse, DFO only gave the Heiltsuk a month’s notice. The announcement came one month before the harvest, which usually happens between mid-March and April.

This is only the latest in a long history of conflicts over the herring fishery.

In 2015, the Heiltsuk Nation forced DFO to stop the destructive commercial practice in Heiltsuk territory. They occupied DFO offices in Bella Bella and organized protests across Canada.

DFO made the decision under the 2021-22 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for Pacific Herring. But the Heiltsuk say the closure goes against the process the Nation and DFO already set up to manage the herring spawn on kelp fishery.

DFO’s action also ignores the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1996 decision, R. v. Gladstone, that confirmed the Heiltsuk’s Aboriginal right to harvest herring spawn on kelp commercially.

Marilyn Slett is the elected Chief of the Heiltsuk Nation. “We are extremely troubled by this decision,” she said in a statement.

“Since we were forced to protest DFO‘s management of the sac roe fishery in 2015, we have worked hard to build trust and collaboratively manage herring stocks in Heiltsuk Territory. This unilateral decision to close our commercial SOK fishery completely undermines those efforts and threatens to undo years of cooperation. It also infringes on our rights.”

That’s why the Heiltsuk are so upset with DFO’s latest decision. They worked damned hard to show the difference between sustainable and unsustainable herring roe harvesting.

Their herring spawn on kelp fishery is economically vital to Heiltsuk people. The Nation suspended its 2020 SOK season to protect against the spread of Covid-19. It cost them more than $6 million. 

But it’s also a significant cultural event. The harvest marks the beginning of the Heiltsuk New Year, or bákvḷá.

In the media statement, the Heiltsuk Nation added that DFO‘s decision to close the fishery ignores Heiltsuk knowledge of sustainable herring management and “will not be taken lying down.”

The Heiltsuk Tribal Council is consulting with Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs and community members to decide how to respond to this unexpected and deeply disappointing decision by DFO.