Heiltsuk decry DFO’s unilateral closure of vital SOK herring roe fishery

Spring is normally the time when mariners from Heiltsuk Nation head out on the water to harvest the precious herring spawn on kelp, known as SOK. 

Says Megan Humchitt, writing about the fishery for RAVEN last year, “This ancient fishery involves hanging weighted kelp, “y̓ák̓a” – stringy kelp -”q̓áq̓ḷ̓ís” – flat kelp, and “h̓a̓ṇ́t” hemlock branches or trees placed in the ocean where the herring are known to lay their eggs (spawn). Once the fish have spawned, branches and kelp are hauled out of the water, coated in golden layers of delicious, nutritious fish roe.”

But this year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is attempting to shut down Heiltsuk’s commercial harvest, despite the landmark Gladstone court challenge that affirms their Aboriginal right to a commercial SOK fishery.  

Humchitt explains, “Heiltsuk have fought hard to maintain the harvesting of SOK as part of a commercial Indigenous fishery that sustains families on B.C.’s central coast. In the Gladstone case (R. v. Gladstone, [1996] 2 S.C.R. 723), the Nation took their fight to be allowed to practice this integral livelihood activity all the way to the Supreme Court – and won. There is added pride in every SOK harvest because the Nation has proven in the highest court that their pre-existing Aboriginal rights must be respected.” 

The DFO made their decision to close the fishery to Heiltsuk harvesters without properly consulting Heiltsuk stewards of the territory. They also ignored the existing bilateral process established between Heiltsuk and Canada to manage the SOK fishery. 

“We are extremely troubled by this decision,” said Marilyn Slett, elected Chief of the Heiltsuk Nation. “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 and infringes our rights.”

“This sustainable fishery has been practiced since time immemorial and marks the beginning of the Heiltsuk New Year, or bákvḷá the beginning of the harvesting season,” says Humchitt. “The herring spawn has been an important part of Heiltsuk stewardship of marine resources for tens of thousands of years. Because the herring themselves are not killed, and only roe that attach to certain branches and kelp are harvested, the SOK fishery ensures a healthy run of herring in years to come.” 

That practice stands in sharp contrast to the commercial herring fishery that uses huge trawlers to vacuum up herring before they have even laid their eggs. This unsustainable practice is responsible for a massive decline in herring stocks on the west coast and, says Humchitt, “guarantees an ever-decreasing harvest year over year.”

The Heiltsuk Nation put a stop to the herring “kill fishery” in their territory through a sustained campaign occupying the DFO offices in their community and launching actions across Canada to raise the alarm. Ever since, Heiltsuk have seen ever-increasing herring stocks. 

The roe-on-kelp fishery usually takes place in March or April, depending on when the fish arrive. The projected loss from cancelling the season in 2020 – when it was suspended by the Nation due to covid-19 — was $6.3 million. 

In a statement, Heiltsuk Nation outlined that the commercial spawn on kelp fishery is much more than an economic lifeline for the community. DFO’s decision to close the fishery ignores Heiltsuk knowledge of herring management and will not be taken lying down. The unilateral fishery closure by DFO signals that regulators are unwilling to uphold agreements made in good faith between nations. 

 Heiltsuk Nation’s current legal challenge involves an Aboriginal Title claim to the foreshore and seabed in the area where the Nathan E. Stewart disaster occurred. With support from RAVEN, the goal is to strengthen Heiltsuk sovereignty over their lands and waters so that the stewardship values that guide Indigenous mariners can be enshrined into law. 

Photo: Megan Humchitt

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