âWhen I was a kid, each of our villages had a fleet of small boats for families to fish and gather their food. Most of us men were also professional gillnet fishermen, trollers or seiners. Our villages were prosperous; we had good food for the table and a decent income. But within two generations we were evicted – kicked out. There are very few fishing vessels in our communities today, and I am one of the few men who still fish commercially. In my life we ââbecame poor in an environment that is still rich. ”
– Arnold Clifton, Chief Councilor, Gitga’at Nation
It’s always hard to accept that you’re going the wrong way. Just ask the fisheries managers along the Atlantic coast, who in their lifetime drastically reduced the number of seemingly inexhaustible cod and eventually saw the collapse of a fishery that was the bedrock of coastal communities and economies. It was about taking too much, too often and thinking too little about future generations.
Here on the west coast we have also witnessed the collapse of our own fisheries as the populations of salmon and other culturally and environmentally important species have drastically declined. These marine species have supported the North and Central Coast First Nations and Haida Gwaii for millennia; they are the essential component for the preservation of our cultures, long-term food security and a sustainable economy.
As with other declines in natural resources across North America, the problem of fisheries management over the past century was not just a question of unsustainable mining practices that have taken more from the sea than could ever be replenished. It is also the case that decision-making and control have been taken over by the First Nations – the people who have the most to lose when sustainability is overlooked.
The groundbreaking Fisheries Resource Equalization Agreement (FRRA) between Coastal First Nations and the Federal Government of Canada – originally signed in 2019 – aims to overcome these historic flaws while creating a fisheries management model based on sustainability and real co-governance. The agreement was amended this summer to set the next steps in planning for new community-based commercial fisheries.
Reconciliation is a long and complicated process. When it comes to fishing on the North Pacific coast of Canada, reconciliation begins with lessons from past injustices and mistakes – decades of overfishing, poor 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 correcting injustices, both past and present, but it’s also about restoring trust and starting over. This last part is the most important, but also the most difficult. This is what brings us together on a new, better path.
Through the cooperation with the federal government at the national level through the FRRA, the nations Gitga’at, Gitxaala, Haida, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo / Xai’xais, Metlakatla, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv will offer their communities the opportunity not to just participate in this revitalized economy, but show the way. The agreement confirms that First Nations have priority access to food fishing. It also ensures better access to commercial fisheries and a greater say in the management of the fishery. It will boost coastal economies, create new jobs and restore the livelihood of commercial fishing, which has long been a major source of income in our communities.
This means that young people can see fishing as a good and stable profession again.
Reconciliation is a long and complicated process.
For the undersigned First Nations, this agreement means increased participation in the existing commercial fisheries, which use the market to purchase licenses, quotas, ships and fishing gear. To support local small boat fleets, a new type of commercial fishing known as community-based fishing is being developed. And an increase in ships will ensure that more families have access to culturally important fish for food, social and ceremonial purposes.
The beauty of the FRRA is that it gives each community the flexibility to choose their own path. Some will begin commercial fishing immediately while others choose to rebuild stocks in their territories first. And some will work to do both.
Aside from the economic benefits, the FRRA’s fisheries management could become a blueprint for improved resource management efforts around the world. The FRRA is administered through a co-governance process between First Nations and the federal government. His approach respects the autonomy and sovereignty of the First Nations while integrating cutting-edge science and ancestral knowledge to create more effective fisheries management plans. Preservation and restoration of stocks, particularly salmon, will be essential. These new fishing plans will protect and preserve fish for the benefit of all Canadians by using current stock and catch numbers based on ongoing surveillance work by the Coastal Guardian Watchmen and other stewardship staff.
For Coastal First Nations, fisheries reconciliation is part of a much larger vision. It is the culmination of extensive work over the past decade to protect the marine environment, combat oil pipelines, and pass the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, which prohibits large oil tankers from crossing our coastal waters and threatening various species.
These groundbreaking achievements in fisheries management and marine conservation are complemented by ongoing work to protect and sustainably manage the forest-based resources of our areas. By signing the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in 2016, we and British Columbia committed to collaborative land planning with an ecosystem-based management approach, creating the largest indigenous-led carbon offset project in Canada.
Taken together, these efforts support our unwavering goal of building a real conversation-based economy in our coastal areas – powered by sustainable fishing, 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 loss of biodiversity – we believe that 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.