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

Herring during the 2018 spawning season in British Columbia. Photo: Pacific Wild

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 mineshydro 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.”

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.

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