Lax Kw’alaams Band Mayor John Helin spoke to the Standing Committee of Fisheries and Oceans on April 9 in Ottawa. (Government of Canada photo)

B.C. North Coast residents to Ottawa: ‘We can’t make a living fishing’

Lax Kw’alaams Mayor, Prince Rupert resident speak to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans

With the federal government reviewing the Fisheries Act, two North Coast B.C. residents flew to Ottawa to present how they think the act should be improved.

There are eight key areas to Bill C-68 and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is listed as number two.

Lax Kw’alaams Band Mayor John Helin called for more consultation as he painted a grim picture of his Indigenous community, how members are struggling to make a living, and his experience with fisheries enforcement officers “racially profiling” members.

“In my community we have a fleet of 70-80 gillnetters that can’t make a living anymore fishing for salmon. We have a fish plant in my community that at its peak employs up 100 members in the village and we’re having a lot of challenges keeping that operation going,” Helin said in his opening statements.

To keep the fish plant going, they’ve diversified by processing groundfish, but he said with all the other fisheries coming into the area they’ve lost the opportunity to fish. One example he offers is the herring fishery.

READ MORE: Lax Kw’alaams, Metlakatla oppose commercial herring fishery

“There was a herring fishery in our day in the 70s and 80s, a seine herring fishery, and it wiped out that fish. To this day, that stock doesn’t come back. So herring is a staple, not just for people, but for other fish in the sea that feed off herring. So it’s alarming to us when DFO allows one guy to go out fishing and everyone else agrees to tie up,” Helin said.

On March 25, Lax Kw’alaams issued a statement that it was opposing the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) decision to open the commercial fishery for herring spawn-on-kelp on the North Coast. Lax Kw’alaams said DFO went against local knowledge, and that Coast Tsimshian people would demonstrate their opposition in waters off Prince Rupert’s coast.

Helin brought up wanting to sign a comprehensive fisheries agreement with DFO, but they have never signed one since losing a fisheries case. Losing that case, he said, resulted in members being targeted on the water.

“It got so bad where one of the fisheries enforcement guys boarded my son’s boat, he was fishing my boat, and he had his 10-year-old kid on the boat, and this guy pulls his gun on the deck of my son’s boat without provocation. That went to court and it was tossed out. That shows how we’re treated in our own traditionally territory,” he said.

“When you talk about reconciliation, consultation, they’re just empty words for us. So hopefully coming before committees like this we can make the improvements that we want.”

Earlier in the day, third-generation fisherwoman, fisheries biologist and Prince Rupert resident, Chelsey Ellis, presented her suggested amendments to Bill C-68, and specifically addressed Section 2.5, the social, economic and cultural factors in the management of fisheries, and the preservation and promotion of independence of licence holders.

Ellis grew up on the East Coast, where she’s seen the benefits of the owner-operator policy for fish harvesters. In her statement, she said this is not the same in British Columbia, where there has been a steady increase of licenses and quota being transferred from fishermen and away from coastal communities.

Due to the current situation on the West Coast, young people are not entering the workforce because they don’t see a future for themselves in the fishing industry.

“For the few young fish harvesters trying to persevere, it’s getting harder to earn a living and find a safe, reliable and professional crew to work with,” Ellis said.

READ MORE: Young B.C. fishers instigate study on West Coast licence, quota system

Her suggested amendment to the Fisheries Act is to include measures that will prioritize and incentivize licenses and quota to be held in hand of “those taking the risks and working long hard hours” to harvest Canadian seafood.

Unique to the West Coast, the person who holds the fishing licence doesn’t necessarily fish on a boat, or live in a coastal community.

“Without measures in place to support and promote owner-operators, we have ended up creating an environment that by nature favours investors and corporate ownership over ownership by independent harvesters,” Ellis said.

In her experience, this results in a decrease in product quality, environmental stewardship, and there is a higher risk of injury on the water.

To attract a skilled and passionate workforce to commercial fisheries, Ellis would like the Fisheries minister to consider the promotion of independence of owner-operator enterprises within all commercial fisheries, not just on the East Coast.

Bill C-68, an act to amend the Fisheries Act, has been given a second reading in the Senate. Helin and Ellis spoke at the third meeting held by the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans.

To report a typo, email: editor@thenorthernview.com.


Shannon Lough | Editor
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