Nuu-chah-nulth fishers are taking part in a small economic fishery in Clayoquot and Nootka Sounds, the first official recognition of their nations’ right to fish and sell fish as outlined by the courts of British Columbia. Approximately 30 people have caught more than 1800 suuhaa (chinook salmon) to date, and nations are seeing the benefits of the fishery even though the event isn’t what many had hoped for.

“Ha’wiih (hereditary chiefs) don’t consider this a true T’aaq-wiihak fishery,” says the fishery’s coordinator, Alex Gagne. T’aaq-wiihak is a Nuu-chah-nulth word meaning ‘with permission of the Ha’wiih.’ It also refers to the title of the fishery and the nations involved. “T’aaq-wiihak Nations proposed a fishery with a robust management plan that aligned better with the needs of the fishers and the communities. DFO ignored that proposal and instead offered this small-scale, economic opportunity with numerous, illogical restrictions.”

In negotiations with Canada for more than two years after the courts recognized the Nuu-chahnulth right to an economic fishery in Ahousaht et al vs Canada, the Nations were ready to stop talking and start fishing. For this reason, they elected to go forward with the DFO offer despite its limitations. The first opening occurred off Tofino in late July. More openings followed off Tofino and Zeballos and are still taking place.

Those who are participating have faced gear restrictions and waters crowded by recreational fishing boats. Joe Martin, designated to fish by Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, wasn’t convinced the fishery was worthwhile given the limitations. “We’re supposed to use plugs to decrease our chances of catching coho, but we were surrounded by recreational boats using flashers and hoochies…”

Equipped with manual downriggers sporting two lines each (four lines in total), Martin’s boat, Shot in One Side, trolled the waters five nautical miles offshore. He opted to sell his modest catch to the Trilogy Fish Store via an offload site at Tofino’s 4th Street dock.

“[The fishery] is very important for the community,” says John Gilmour, owner of Trilogy. “It’s normally very difficult for residents to get access to fresh, local fish. It only happens during commercial openings.”

Other Nuu-chah-nulth are selling to Lions Gate or Pasco Seafoods—buyers arranged by the nations—or local restaurants and dealers. Like Trilogy, they appreciate having access to the Nuuchah-nulth product. Dockside monitors employed by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council check over the catches at all landing sites to ensure fish met criteria for species and size. Fishers receive copies of a landing slip, which they later use to fill out a sales slip with their buyer.

“Without this very important piece of paper, nobody can sell to a restaurant or licensed buyer,” says Andrew Jackson, fisheries manager for Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Jackson and other designated guardians are patrolling the fishery from the water. They look for the distinctive orange flags indicating a licensed boat and check to make sure everyone obeys the location and gear restrictions.

“It’s quite tough for our people because they don’t drag as many lures as a regular Area G troller…yet they have to obey the same rules…A regular Area G commercial fisherman would use six lines with an average of 8-10 hooks per line. They could have 48 plugs out at one time.”

Jackson also noted the challenging location restrictions imposed on Nuu-chah-nulth fishers, who are fishing more than five nautical miles offshore, but not more than nine miles out. “The majority of the boats that are out there right now are bigger than our boats. They’re not restricted to five miles out… We do have traditional fishing grounds within the five miles, but we’re not allowed there. The sporties are…” says Jackson.

Despite these limitations, the fishery has generated over $45,000 in sales to date and is allowing some fishers to make a modest profit. In addition, old troll boats previously docked for decades are active and participating in the fishery. There is also a sharing of fishing culture from parents to children, once common in these communities, and the fishery has resulted in a high quality, hook-and-line product now in demand.

“There are challenges, but people are making it work out there. Many fishers like this fishery, and the buyers do too,” says Katie Beach, Central Region Biologist for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. “We’ve learned more in the past few weeks than we did sitting around the negotiation table. And the learning continues, resulting in better and better profits for Nuu-chah-nulth fishers.”

For more information about the Nuu-chah-nulth commercial fisheries, contact Alex Gagne at 778- 772-2954.