My introduction to the frontier lifestyle of the West Coast came shortly after I began my articling year in Nanaimo, when the herring fleet hit town.
Those were the glory days of the herring fishery, when high-balling crews of “Cold water Cowboys” exuberantly chased enormous schools of herring around the Straits of Georgia, loading their skiffs with fish until their gunwales were almost awash, then frantically signaling to the hovering packer boats displaying “Cash Buyer” signs, to sell their catch before they capsized. Herring roe is a delicacy in Japan, and the Japanese were flush, paying huge prices for the roe.
There was a raw excitement in the air as the triumphant crews swaggered up Front Street, their pockets and sometimes even paper bags, literally stuffed with cash, and it was standing room only at the Globe Hotel beer parlour, my favorite watering hole, as fishermen stood rounds..
I recently had occasion to reminisce about those halcyon days with Mark Penney, a longtime West Coast Fisher, and now art gallery owner in Ucluelet. We were examining a painting in his gallery depicting the setting of a purse seine net, and Mark provided his own reminiscences of the fishery, and especially the hard times that have befallen it since it’s heyday.
Herring stocks have collapsed in many areas of the coast, calling into question the efficacy of the management of the fishery by the Department of Fisheries ( the same folk who, you will recall, mismanaged the Atlantic cod fishery to the point of complete collapse)
I learned that DFO views the herring roe fishery, conducted before the fish spawn, and the herring ‘spawn on kelp’ fishery, which harvests herring roe after the spawn, as unrelated fisheries to be regulated by different groups of bureaucrats and subject to different quotas and different methods of analysis to determine sustainable catch limits, oblivious to the fact that the roe is coming from the same source!
The health of the herring stocks has long been a matter of grave concern of the Heiltsuk First Nation of the central coast, to the point where last year they decided to suspend their traditional fishery entirely. first nations fishing rights are zealously guarded so it must’ve been a difficult decision for the band.
Unfortunately DFO decided to chart their own course, and opted to let Jimmy Pattison’s Canfisco fleet to drop their nets. The Heiltsuk weren’t even advised of the openings, only learning of it when they looked out the kitchen windows to see the non-native commercial fleet setting their nets. That miscommunication March hello water point in relation is between local first Nations and the fence and demonstrated that the stain with which DFO reviewed the local first Nations local knowledge gleaned through millennia of observing and husbanding the resources of the sea
imagine then my surprise to learn that this year DFO have completely reversed course. They have completely canceled this year’s roe herring fishery, while allowing a tiny 600 short ton first nation roe fishery for food and ceremonial purposes, and is also green-lighted a small spot on kelp fishery to permit first nations to harvest a staple of their traditional diet.
The Supreme Court of Canada in 1997 recognized the Heiltsuk’s right to trade in herring, and underscored the legitimacy of their demands to be involved in the management of herring stocks. 20 years on it seems that DFO has finally got the memo. In their announcement of this year’s closure they make specific reference to the principle of reconciliation with First Nations. For perhaps the first time as well, they appear to be listening to the wisdom of First Nations people.
in the hope that DFO’s recent actions are indeed an earnest beginning toward a better relationship with our First Nations I cautiously applaud their initiative.
Credit where credit is due