PHOTOS: The Story of Heiltsuk Nation’s spawn-on-kelp fishery

Story by Megan Humchitt, Heiltsuk Nation

Spring is the time you’ll find Heiltsuk mariners out on the water, harvesting herring spawn on kelp (SOK). 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. 

This sustainable fishery has been practised since time immemorial and marks the beginning of the Heiltsuk New Year, or bákvḷá the beginning of the harvesting season. 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. 

Contrast this traditional practice with the commercial herring fishery, in which large vessels vacuum up herring – roe and all – into their holds, where roe is then extracted from fish before eggs have even been laid, guaranteeing an ever-decreasing harvest year over year. The Heiltsuk Nation has long been opposed to this type of “kill fishery”, and in 2015 the occupation of the DFO field station in Bella Bella and accompanying protests all throughout Canada led to the first ever Joint Herring Management Plan. This has led to the closure of the “kill fishery” in Heiltsuk Territory and ever increasing herring stocks. 

The 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. 

Last year, the Heiltsuk Nation made the difficult decision to suspend the spawn-on-kelp fishery due to COVID. So it is with joy and celebration that the 2021 SOK harvest is underway in the Heiltsuk waters around Bella Bella. Enjoy these photos of the harvest!

This story was created by Megan Humchitt – pictured above – a Heiltsuk mariner and community leader who is reporting with RAVEN as part of our Indigenous Storytelling Initiative.

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