The show must go on: Ha’oom Fisheries Society moves ahead in the face of a pandemic

Members of the Ha’oom Fisheries Society (formerly known as T’aaq-wiihak Fisheries) are embracing opportunity and working towards structuring their organization and identifying their management priorities despite challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a transition; it’s an opportunity to build a new organization,” said Alex Gagne, Ha’oom Fisheries Society Executive Director.

Incorporated on January 17, the Society is a non-profit organization made up of appointed representatives from the Five Nations (Ahousaht, Ehattesaht/Chinehkint, Mowachaht/Muchalaht, Hesquiaht and Tla-o-qui-aht) with the court-affirmed, constitutionally protected Aboriginal right to harvest and sell all species of fish found within their territories. 

The Five Nations fisheries agreements were previously administered by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, but the Ha’oom Fisheries Society now operates independently with funds received through a Reconciliation Funding Agreement with the Government of Canada.

The agreement, which is still being developed, is a result of the Five Nations’ ongoing negotiations with Canada that follow over a decade of litigation including the original Ahousaht et al v. Canada trial, appeals and the subsequent ‘justification trial.’

Building from the ground up, Gagne and Tessa Saxby-Jones, Program Coordinator for Ha’oom Fisheries Society are working on filling eight new positions that have been created within the Society under the guidance of the Ha’oom Board of Directors, and the approval of the Ha’wiih (hereditary chiefs): five fisheries community liaisons, a fisheries coordinator, a finance and business development officer and a communications specialist.

“Our main goal is to have these positions filled in the communities, and supporting community members also,” said Gagne.

Gagne strongly encourages Nuu-chah-nulth-aht with varying levels of experience to apply for the job opportunities, especially the community liaison positions. At press time, only one of the eight positions had been filled, and Gagne believes it is due largely to the effects COVID-19 is having on communities.

On April 1, the Society welcomed Kadin Snook, a member of Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation (and former fisheries coordinator for the Nation) as their fisheries coordinator.

The Ha’oom Board of Directors and Society staff continue to work on the vision for the Five Nations fisheries that will include three moving parts: The Ha’oom Fisheries Society (the governance body, and overarching driver), the Ha’oom Fisheries Corporation (the business entity) and the Ha’oom Fisheries Trust (for financial transactions with the Government of Canada).

Saul Milne, Ha’oom Fisheries Society Strategic Advisor, and Gagne are estimating roughly 12-18 months to complete the development work which will occur alongside the ongoing funding agreement negotiations with Canada.

“The Five Nations are the first group in Canada to be going through this kind of reconciliation process at this level,” remarked Gagne, when asked about the negotiation timeline, and any outstanding issues between the Five Nations and Canada.

“Everyone is learning as they go, even the Government of Canada,” she added.

Conclusion of the Reconciliation Funding Agreement will enable the Nations to continue building capacity within their communities, and to assign biological and management priorities for their fisheries under their own (recognized) governance structure.

Social distancing measures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult for Society and Nation members to gather in person to discuss their fisheries and priorities.

“COVID-19 has for the most part removed the opportunity to meet in person to discuss fishery options – this makes things very complex in terms of planning,” observed Snook.

The measures have also made fishing more challenging, and fish landing protocols more intricate.

According to Snook, the response to the virus is likely the root cause of the soft market fishers are currently dealing with. Gagne agrees.

“Because of the shutdowns, fishers across the board are seeing a decrease in demand for their product and a significant decrease in prices being offered for their product,” said Gagne.

Five Nations’ fishers remain generally optimistic but cautious about the upcoming fishing season.

Ha’oom Fisheries Society staff are supporting the fishers as best they can as they navigate applications to recently-announced federal COVID-19 financial aid programs, including the Fish Harvester Benefit and Fish Harvester Grant, which promise up to $470M in support funding for fish harvesters, food processors and farmers.

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