5 First Nations in B.C. get green light to start commercial crab fishery

They’ve been fighting for the inherent right to harvest food from the sea for decades.

Five Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nations are preparing to exercise their right to harvest crab commercially on Vancouver Island.

The First Nations say they will collaborate with B.C. Crab Fishers Association to build a sustainable fishery in their territory.

Wickaninnish Cliff Atleo of Ahousaht First Nation welcomes news that Nuu-chah-nulth will start to harvest crabs commercially.

Atleo says late last year Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) sent a notice that they could participate in the commercial crab fishery.

“We have an economic model that we can adapt to the fishing of any species, and so we’ll be able to figure out pretty quick what it’s going to take to actually be involved in a sustainable fishery of crab,” he said.

The announcement is a long time coming.

Since 2003, Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Ehattesaht/Chinehkint, Mowachaht/Muchalaht, and Tla-o-qui-aht, five of Nuu-chah-nulth’s 13 nations have been in court fighting for fishing rights.

First Nations crab fishery
Hasaamac (dungeness crab) in Sydney Inlet, located in the ha-houlthee (traditional territory) of Ahousaht. Photo courtesy: Kayla Lucas.

In 2009, the nations celebrated a huge victory when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled they have the right to harvest nearly all species in their territories; geoduck (a type of clam) is the only species excluded.

In April 2021, the decision was confirmed by the B.C. Court of Appeal.

In an emailed statement to APTN News, DFO says it then consulted with the five nations to gradually implement the crab fishery in Area E, located around Tofino on Vancouver Island.

“DFO has arrived at an agreement with the Five Nations to phase in their allocation increase, with some of the increase being implemented in the 2022/23 fishing season, and the balance in the 2023/24 fishing season,” the statement read.

But to give the five nations licences, DFO has reduced the commercial crab traps for the non-First Nation harvesters.

“Commercial crab trap totals have been reduced for the 2022 fishing season to provide the increased allocation for the Five Nations’ right-based crab fishery as directed by the B.C. Court of Appeal,” the statement added.

DFO said the five nations are already in one of the first-of-its-kind agreements for harvesting and selling fish.

“Since April 2019, five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (Ahousaht, Ehattesaht, Hesquiaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Tla-o-qui-aht) have been fishing and selling fish under an annual Multi-Species Fishery Management Plan for a right-based fishery in their court-defined fishing territories,” the statement read.

“This fishery management plan…was developed by DFO in consultation with the Five Nations to implement the rights.”

First Nations crab fishery

But the reduced current commercial crab allocation has some crab harvesters worried they won’t survive.

Wickaninnish believes the commercial crab harvesters haven’t been treated fairly but says the two parties are building a working relationship.

“They have been mistreated just like we have been, so we are in the process of establishing a working relationship where those that will offer up crab traps for sale for our fishers and we will gear up accordingly to accommodate the reallocation of the crab,” he explained.

This past weekend in an emailed statement to APTN News, Jason Voong, president of the BC Crab Fishermen’s Association says they support the move to respect Indigenous rights but have a problem with how it was implemented by DFO.

“Crab harvesters fully support and honour the ongoing efforts with respect to reconciliation and Indigenous rights & title, “ the statement read.  “Our frustration and concern lie squarely on DFO and the federal government’s lack of proper planning, engagement and consultation with the trap reallocation and the economic consequences for fishing families.”

Voong added that they look forward to working with the Nuu-chah-nulth.

Wickaninnish is hopeful all five Nuu-chah-nulth nations will be able to participate in the crab fishery.

“There is interest by young people to be part of this industry,” he said, “and the crab association has been open and willing to share their knowledge about their industry.

“I look forward to when things settle down we can get a handle on management in a good way. “

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