Collaborating to restore Pacific Region fish and their habitats

Nuu-chah-nulth Nations have been sounding the alarm on the need to protect and rebuild fish populations and habitats in their Ha-ha-houlthee (chiefly territories) for decades.

On February 20, at a special meeting of the Council of Ha’wiih Forum on Fisheries, the nations met with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to reiterate their thoughts and contribute to the restoration priorities plan being developed for the Pacific Region.

Representatives met for a full day of discussion at Uchucklesaht Tribe’s multi-purpose room on Redford Ave. in Port Alberni.

“The plan itself is about all fish and habitats, not just salmon,” said Scott Northrup, Team Lead with DFO’s Restoration Centre of Expertise.

Northrup was joined by Jennifer Harding, Senior Resource Restoration Biologist with the Centre. Harding and Northrup kicked off discussions by asking Nuu-chah-nulth Ha’wiih and their representatives which species are important to them and their communities.

The response was unanimous among the nations.

“All the species are important to our people, right down to the herring,” said Andy Webster, long-time fisher from Ahousaht First Nation.

Webster’s sentiment was echoed loudly around the table. Members underscored the need for a comprehensive approach to developing a restoration priorities plan that is ecosystem-based.

Uchucklesaht Ha-wilth (hereditary chief) t’iṕiniqsip, Thomas Rush, zeroed in on hissit (sockeye in fresh water) as a particular species his nation would like to see restored.

“There was a day where you could almost walk on water, there were so many sockeye in our harbour,” said Rush.

Andrew Jackson, fisheries manager for Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, noted that DFO’s attempts to bring hissit back to Kennedy Lake have failed and that efforts to restore other salmon species are moving too slow.

“By DFO’s own admission, they’re concerned about [Clayoquot] Chinook yet there’s no action. Twenty years now they’ve been concerned – twenty years,” Jackson emphasized.

The nations identified a list of threats to fish habitats that would need to be addressed as part of a restoration plan.

Included in the list were predation, marine shipping and pollution (ghost gear, garbage, cruise ship effluent, lost cargo), highway pollution and land and forest practices.

‘If you take a boat ride along WCVI at low tide, every stream where there’s been logging, you’ll see a huge aggradation of sediment that has elevated some estuaries by up to two metres,” said Jim Lane, Acting Program Manager for Uu-a-thluk.

The table acknowledged that habitat rebuilding work would need to restore the functionality of the entire watershed to be effective.

Members also explored the importance of building climate change resiliency as part of the plan. Increasing water temperatures, reduced snowpack, drought, and flooding from extreme precipitation events are posing severe threats to fish and fish habitats, and both Nuu-chah-nulth and DFO agreed mitigation of them is key.

Nuu-chah-nulth noted that DFO’s historic management practices would need to be vastly improved for a collaborative restoration plan to work. To start, deeply rooted institutional racism against Indigenous Peoples would need to be addressed.

Fisheries management would need to be reframed with a “think local” approach that empowers Indigenous Guardians to protect fish and fish habitats through monitoring, protection and enforcement.

Throughout the day, Northrup repeated that the way habitat restoration funding is delivered needs to be reimagined.

He would like to see communities accessing funds when they are ready – when they have prioritized their goals and identified their areas of interest – instead of developing applications in response to funding announcements.

Lane highlighted the need for long-term funding as part of a needed change.

“We’re always chasing after the most recent pot of money that’s available,” he said. “Having a stable source of money for a long term, say 20 years – not spending resources trying to find money, but spending resources trying to develop restoration and implementing it – that would make things a lot easier.”

Uu-a-thluk’s regional biologists are offering support to any Nuu-chah-nulth Nations seeking bilateral engagement with the Centre on the restoration priorities plan.

The Council of Ha’wiih Forum on Fisheries will be meeting with Northrup and Harding in the coming months (before the first draft of the plan is out) and has invited representatives from the province of B.C. to take part in discussions.

In 2019, Hesquiaht First Nation worked with partner organizations to restore habitat in Hesquiaht Harbour.  Top photo: Lindsay Henwood.  Bottom photo: Josh Charleson

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