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Heiltsuk herring fishery victory in Bella Bella. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa

Heiltsuk herring fishery victory in Bella Bella. Photo by Mychaylo Prystupa

The recent victory of the Heiltsuk band in Bella Bella over the herring fishery is not only heartwarming, it is significant. It has once again demonstrated that the history and experience of the First Nations can trump the conclusions of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

In 1978, I became Environment Minister for British Columbia and thus had the limited jurisdiction over fisheries permitted under the Constitution Act. Because I had always been interested in the Pacific fishery, born and raised here, I asked for and read, the voluminous reports and documents the ministry had collected over the decades.

Even the most avid federalist would’ve had to conclude that since B.C. joined Confederation in 1871, the Pacific fishery has been a gigantic pain in the ass to the federal government. Consequently, the politicians have seldom taken the time to understand the fishery, and I am prepared to bet a shilling that not one in five federal ministers could have stated the seven PacifIc salmon species. As a matter of interest, they are the chinook, chum, coho, sockeye, pink, rainbow trout (steelhead) and cutthroat trout. The latter two are a recent addition to the list.

The damage that has been done to the salmon fishery over the years has been varied and extraordinary. The causes range from overfishing to development to changes in climate to DFO stupidity.

Many interests in the Pacific salmon have sprung up over the years. Of first importance is, of course, First Nations who rely upon the fish for their sustenance and inter-tribal trade.

Then we have the commercial fishers who have been around since the beginning and are often supported by a local cannery. Then there are sports fishermen of various branches including those who fish in the ocean and those who fish for anadromous salmon in the rivers, steelhead being the most obvious target.

Because of the nature of the fishery, it is easily split into various groups and the federal government has masterfully exploited those splits by giving money to the ones they favour and ignoring those they don’t.

This has been a policy for 100 years or more and it has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. To this day, it’s impossible to bring together the various “stakeholders” in the industry;  and the federal government knows that and loves it.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has long been a paradox. Always peopled by experts of the highest order in the field, those experts have invariably been turned away by the politicians when their information and expertise is most needed.

Probably the best recent example of this happened with the Kemano Completion Project in the 1980s which was eventually tubed by Premier Harcourt in 1995.

In this particular case, the DFO scientists, many of whom I got to know very well, unanimously and vigorously opposed the project and were silenced by then-federal Minister of Fisheries Tom Siddon. Many of them were sent to Coventry one way or another: retired, switched, demoted and so on. From that moment, science was subverted and fully subverted to politics and thus it remains.

It is this sad fact that has dramatically heightened the importance of the First Nations bands not only on the coast but in the interior. It is their need for conservation which more and more is driving policy but only after extreme pressure is applied to DFO.

I will give you an interesting example of Indian conservation.

Many years ago as a very young boy I used to fish a little creek called Tin Can Creek on the Musqueum Reserve in South Vancouver. We caught tiny little cutthroat trout.

My pal Denis and I were shocked, not to say horrified, one day when a young Indian lad gaffed two very substantial coho salmon likely about five or 6 pounds each out of this tiny creek. Denis and I were horrified to think that fish that big were in there and it was a little scary but very educational. I learned that Coho don’t spawn in large numbers as other species do but in very small numbers and often, in tiny creeks and ditches.

The story, however, is this – that little creek, properly called Musqueum Creek, still supports to this day a run of coho salmon thanks to the Musqueum Indian band.

It is certainly not my position that there is no role for science. Of course there is, and First Nations acknowledge this. However when the science is nonexistent, or of dubious accuracy, the First Nations’ wisdom of the ages must surely prevail. This is simply a matter of fundamental precaution made necessary, not up by an absence of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans but by a mostly uneven, and usually political intervention which inevitably leads to greater harm, not less.

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