Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For background on this conflict in Canada, see our earlier commentary in the Albion Monitor, as well as a news article about the British Columbia treaty negotiations.]

Canadian Fishers Resent Native Rights

by Barbara Borst

Rights to 13 percent of sockeye and 15 percent of pink salmon

(IPS) VANCOUVER -- A group of indigenous people in British Columbia won a guaranteed share of the commercial salmon catch that has other fish workers crying foul.

In a settlement in February between the Nisga's nation, the federal government, and the province, the tribe gained the right to harvest and sell 13 percent of sockeye and 15 percent of pink salmon from the Nass River, a major river system here.

That is in addition to the constitutionally protected right to fish for food as well as social and ceremonial purposes -- a right superseded only by conservation needs.

Non-native fish workers and some politicians condemn the February agreement

With more than 40 British Columbia native bands still negotiating their claims, indigenous communities hope -- and commercial fishermen fear -- that the Nisga's agreement will strengthen aboriginal rights to fish.

Ken Malloway, a member of the Sto:lo Nation and spokesperson for the British Columbia Aboriginal Fisheries Council, said specifics of the Nisga's agreement would not be appropriate for other bands, but that the principle had been won through court battles and tough negotiations.

"We keep hearing that you can't have rights based on race, but we won them through the courts," he stated, adding that native fish workers had been a major part of Canada's commercial fisheries for 50 years before an 1878 law prohibited them from selling fish.

Indigenous fish workers have refused to identify those fish they take for food and those they plan to sell. They argue that it should be their right to do both and that all fish become someone's food. Several legal cases against them are expected to be resolved soon.

Dennis Brown of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers' Union called the precedent "dangerous," because it does not compensate non-native fishers who could be forced out of the business. He contends that the federal government granted the Nisga's fishing guarantees in order to reduce the land and money it would have to offer to settle claims.

"The feds will try to lay the blame on apparently selfish and racist commercial fishermen," he said.

The industry is British Columbia's largest employer of Native people, he maintained. Native peoples already own or operate a third of the commercial fishing boats.

Gordon Campbell, who heads the province's Liberal party opposition, denounced the creation of "a racially based commercial fishery." He advocates equal access to commercial fishing for all and the transfer of responsibility for fisheries from the federal to the provincial government.

Rob Morley, executive director of the Fisheries Council of British Columbia, says the Nisga's agreement runs the risk of "dividing people along racial lines."

The council "clearly thinks it's wrong" to establish unequal rights to an economic activity that draws from public resources. "Aboriginal people have been very successfully integrated in the commercial fisheries," he said of the current system. "It's really a success story they should be looking to repeat elsewhere."

Some argue that the entire salmon fishing industry should be turned over to Native peoples -- both to address their economic needs and to protect the fish

Government officials defend the settlement as socially and environmentally sound. Trevor Proverbs of the provincial ministry of aboriginal affairs said proportions allocated to the Nisga do not set precedents because the situation is unusual.

The Nisgas are among just three native bands who fish one of the province's major river systems. They dwell in a remote area with few economic opportunities. Allocations for other groups are unlikely to approach such levels, Proverbs said.

"The Nisgas are leaders in selective harvesting technology, using fish wheels," he adds, referring to the technique that enables fish workers to throw back into the water species that are dwindling.

A study commissioned by the forest industry and released in January revealed that certain salmon species in lower British Columbia could be decimated. With cod fishing closed on the Atlantic Coast because of massive over fishing, the report set off alarm bells.

Bud Graham of the federal department of fisheries and oceans said the salmon situation is both more complex and less alarming than in the Atlantic. While cod is one big population, five or six species of salmon make up thousands of individual groups that spawn in thousands of streams.

Conservationists are worried about two species of salmon in southern British Columbia -- chinook and coho. The past decade has shown the highest average catches since 1913.

A Pacific Policy Round Table, initiated by the fisheries department last December to rationalize the commercial salmon fishery, sent 27 recommendations to the minister.

While the minister is yet to take a decision on most of the recommendations, one is already being pursued: an independent study of how the catch should be allocated among native, sport, and commercial fish workers.

Richard Schwindt, economics professor at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver and author of the new book, Market Solutions to Native Poverty, argues that the entire salmon fishing industry should be turned over to Native peoples -- both to address their economic needs and to protect the fish.

The industry is "probably extinguishing wealth rather than creating it," he writes, adding that commercial fish workers are investing more capital than is practical and that the government incurs huge costs to monitor the catch.

Native fish workers generally harvest, not at sea, but at the mouths of rivers, where it is easier to take only the fish populations that are not endangered.

The challenge for native bands, Schwindt said, would be to sort out among themselves their rights to the fish and responsibilities for maintaining the spawning grounds. But the transfer to native peoples is justified, he argues, adding that creating opportunities for native economic independence is "a moral issue."

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Albion Monitor May 27, 1996 (

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