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Keeping ‘at risk’ fisheries closed against federal insistence: A Haida Gwaii Case Study

Written by: Scott Schrempf, Marine Affairs Program, Graduate Student

I am a first-year Master of Marine Management student at Dalhousie University located in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. As a white man coming from Southwestern Ontario, I am participating in this exercise to learn more about the struggles and successes with co-management implementation as part of the Community-Based Co-Management (MARA5012) course at Dalhousie.

In this blog I am drawing from a research article titled, “Strategies for assertion of conservation and local management rights: A Haida Gwaii herring story” by Russ Jones, Catherine Rigg, and Evelyn Pinkerton. This research was done by researchers in British Columbia, from the Haida Nation and Simon Fraser University, and in writing this blog I aim to bring to light co-management efforts from the Haida Nation and their successes in protecting local herring stocks in opposition to the intentions of the federal government, and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Over the past three decades, the British Columbia (BC) herring fishery has experienced several closures because of overfishing and low stocks. Due to the uncertainties surrounding stock levels and to protect their local herring stocks, the Haida Nation used several avenues (e.g., litigation, confrontation, and dispute resolution) to keep their herring fishery closed despite the decision of the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans to open them to commercial fishing in 2014 and 2015.


Since the 1990s, the Haida Nation and Parks Canada have had a co-management agreement in place for the oversight of Gwaii Haanas, a protected area of Haida Gwaii. This agreement established the Archipelago Management Board (AMB), which later provided oversight to the marine protected area in 2010 through the Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement between the Haida Nation, Parks Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). As of 2011, the AMB consists of three members of the Council of Haida Nation (CHN), two members from Parks Canada and one member from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

Over this same period, there were several trends concerning the Pacific herring fishery that influenced DFO management of herring stocks and outcomes related to Haida Nation action. These included a BC fisheries trend towards property rights and individual transferable quotas, a decrease in the prices for herring roe, and a reduction in funding for herring sampling and management.

Herring spawn-on-kelp, or k’aaw, is culturally important to Haida and is a traditional food source. Harvesting herring follows Haida knowledge and principles of respect and moderation. For example, Haida catch herring and place them in ponds for spawning, and then they subsequently release them once spawning is complete. In Haida Gwaii, most of the herring stock is within the boundaries of Gwaii Haanas and is therefore overseen by the AMB.

During 2003 and 2004, the herring fishery in Haida Gwaii was only open to spawn-on-kelp harvesting. From 2005-2013, the entire fishery was closed to all commercial fishing due to herring stocks being estimated as lower than the harvesting cut-off. It is believed that DFO management is a large factor in continued low herring stocks.

2014-2016 Conflicts and Resolutions

Image generated by DALL-E-3 based on a summary prompt of this blog.

In 2014, the DFO implemented a new, and less conservative, scientific model that suggested herring stocks were above the cut-off. When using the former model at the request of Indigenous groups, herring stocks were predicted to be lower than the cut-off and as a result, Haida and the AMB supported a continued closure. That season the Minister opened the fishery in line with requests by industry, over the recommendations from both DFO staff and the AMB. As a result, the CHN went to court and sent letters asking fishermen to avoid Haida when fishing. When the Nuu-chah-nulth nation was favoured in a similar case that season, Haida worked with industry to compromise for that season such that no licensees fished in Haida waters. That season, AMB also enacted the formal dispute resolution clause of the Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement over the role of the AMB.

In 2015, two new models were produced with differing predictions on Pacific herring stock levels with Haida supporting further closures. That year, the AMB was unable to find a consensus on their position, but when the Minister opened the fishery, both Nuu-chah-nulth and Haida again went to court. In addition, CHN sent letters to ask fish harvesters to avoid Haida waters. When the Nuu-chah-nulth case was dismissed, Haida learned from the shortfalls to enact a successful challenge. Due to the co-management agreement between the Haida Nation and Canada, the judge placed higher importance on collaborating with Haida on issues of conservation and management of herring stocks and noted that the DFO decision to open the fishery would harm both herring stocks and reconciliation.

In 2016, with a new Liberal government in Ottawa, there was a higher emphasis on collaboration between DFO, AMB, and CHN and a dedication towards a renewed nation-to-nation relationship. When the two models conflicted again, AMB supported a fishery closure, CHN agreed, and the Minister closed the fishery. With the new government in power, there appears to be increased collaboration in fisheries management, with an emphasis on co-management between parties and local management, and an increase in funds allocated towards updating cooperative management plans.

Looking Forward

While the implementation of co-management boards is a large step towards recognition of Indigenous and treaty rights, a power imbalance remains between the Government of Canada and Indigenous Peoples due to Ministerial discretion.

This paper highlights potential avenues for requiring consultation and recognition of co-management rights if a Minister oversteps and/or ignores co-management board suggestions through direct action, negotiations, and, as a last resort, litigation. In addition, it demonstrates the importance of having a co-management agreement in place, and of challenging Ministerial decisions using both conservation and Indigenous rights.

As of today, there is an updated integrated fisheries management plan for the Pacific herring fishery which considers Indigenous knowledge, values, and perspectives for shared stewardship of this culturally important resource.

To read more information on this story, please see:

Jones, R., Rigg, C., & Pinkerton, E. (2017). Strategies for assertion of conservation and local

management rights: A Haida Gwaii herring story. Marine Policy, 80, 154-167.

Additional References:

Government of Canada. (2023). Pacific herring 2022-2023: Integrated fisheries management

Government of Canada. (2022, April 6). The Archipelago Management Board.

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