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Fisheries reconciliation key to building conservation-based economy

A landmark agreement between Coastal First Nations and the federal government aims to turn the corner on historical wrongs

“When I was a child, each of our villages had a fleet of small boats for families to fish and gather their food. Most of us men were also commercial fishermen on gillnetters, trollers or seine boats. Our villages were wealthy; we had good food for the table and decent incomes. But within two generations, we were displaced – kicked out. There are very few fishing vessels in our communities today, and I am one of only a handful of men who still fish commercially. In my lifetime, we have become poor in what is still a rich environment.”

– Arnold Clifton, Chief Councillor, Gitga’at Nation

It’s always hard to accept that you’re heading down the wrong path. Just ask fishery managers along the Atlantic Coast, who saw, within their lifetimes, the seemingly inexhaustible cod drastically reduced in numbers, and the eventual collapse of a fishery that was the foundation of coastal communities and economies. It was a case of taking too much, too often, with too little thought given to future generations.

Here on the West Coast, we’ve experienced our own fisheries collapse, too, as populations of salmon and other culturally and ecologically important species experience drastic reductions. These marine species have supported First Nations of the North and Central Coast and Haida Gwaii for millennia; they are the essential ingredient in maintaining our cultures, long-term food security and sustainable economies.

As with other natural resource declines across North America, the problem with fisheries management over the past century has been not just a matter of unsustainable extraction practices that have taken more from the sea than could ever be replenished. It’s also that decision-making power and control were taken from First Nations – the people with the most to lose if sustainability is overlooked.

The landmark Fisheries Resources Reconciliation Agreement (FRRA) between Coastal First Nations and Canada’s federal government – initially signed in 2019 – aims to turn the corner on those historic wrongs while creating a fisheries management model based on sustainability and true co-governance. The agreement was amended this summer to establish the next planning steps for new community-based commercial fisheries.

Reconciliation is a long and complicated process. When it comes to fisheries along the North Pacific Coast of Canada, reconciliation begins with lessons learned from past injustices and mistakes – decades of overfishing, bad management decisions and authority wrested from the very people whose ancestors have managed these coastal resources for thousands of years. It’s about recognizing injustices and righting wrongs, both past and present, but it’s also about rebuilding trust and starting over. This latter part is the most important but also the most difficult. It’s what sets us out on a new, better path together.

By working together with the federal government on a nation-to-nation basis through the FRRA, the Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Haida, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Metlakatla, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv Nations will provide opportunities for their communities to not only participate but lead the way in this revitalized economy. The agreement upholds First Nations’ priority access to food fisheries. It also ensures greater access to commercial fisheries and increased say in how fisheries are managed. It will stimulate the coastal economy, create new jobs and restore a livelihood in commercial fishing that has long been a major source of income in our communities. 

It will mean young people can once again look to fishing as a good and stable career.

Reconciliation is a long and complicated process.

For signatory First Nations, this agreement will mean increased involvement in existing commercial fisheries using the market to purchase licences, quotas, vessels and gear. A new type of commercial fishery – called a community-based fishery – will be developed to support local small-boat fleets. And an increase in vessels will ensure more families can access culturally important fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes.

The beauty of the FRRA is that it offers flexibility for each community to choose its own path. Some will start commercial fisheries immediately, while others will choose to rebuild stock in their territories first. And some will work to do both. 

Beyond the economic benefits, fisheries management through the FRRA could become a blueprint for improved resource-management efforts worldwide. The FRRA will be managed through a co-governance process between First Nations and the federal government. Its approach respects First Nations’ autonomy and sovereignty while incorporating both cutting-edge science and ancestral knowledge to establish more effective fisheries management plans. Conservation and restoring stocks, especially salmon, will be foundational. These new fisheries plans will protect and conserve fish for the benefit of all Canadians by using up-to-date stock and catch numbers based on ongoing monitoring work by Coastal Guardian Watchmen and other stewardship staff.

For Coastal First Nations, fisheries reconciliation is one part of a much larger vision. It’s the culmination of extensive work over the past decade safeguarding the marine environment, fighting oil pipelines and ensuring passage of the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, which prohibits large oil tankers from traversing our coastal waters and threatening diverse species. 

These landmark achievements in fisheries management and marine protection are complemented by ongoing work to protect and sustainably manage the forest-based resources of our territories. By signing the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements in 2016, along with British Columbia, we made a commitment to collaborative land planning using an ecosystem-based management approach, and in the process created the largest Indigenous-led carbon offset project in Canada. 

Taken together, these efforts support our unwavering goal of building a true conversation-based economy in our coastal territories – driven by sustainable fisheries, clean energy and ecotourism, instead of unsustainable activities that have proven so destructive. 

In a world facing two major and worsening crises – climate change and biodiversity loss – we believe this sustainable vision is needed now, more than ever. For our coastal communities, but also for others across the country and beyond. 

Christine Smith-Martin is the executive director of the Coastal First Nations-Great Bear Initiative.

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