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Prawn fishery opens without signs of Native blockade

Stz'uminus First Nation in talks with federal Fisheries as fishermen aim to honour possible blockage off Cowichan
Spot Prawn Festival
Fred McGuinness weighs fresh spot prawns during last year's spot prawn season.

A threatened First Nations’ blockade of the Salish Sea has yet to materialize — much to the relief of Cowichan spot prawn fishermen.

The commercial spot prawn season opened at noon yesterday in local waters under the shadow of last week’s Stz’uminus First Nation announcement that it was banning all boat traffic in its traditional waters.

Police cruised the area as fishing began, but with no sign of any action being taken to enforce the declaration, local fisherman Lance Underwood was cautiously optimistic the ‘sea bugs’ would be available for harvest during a prawning season expected to last about six weeks.

“I have a feeling there might be a lot of resistance to us entering the (prawning) area,” Underwood said of Stz’uminus’ potential blockade of its core territories in waters between Dodds and Sansum Narrows.

Stz’uminus agents were unavailable for comment at press time. But there have been no reports of any action taken in the wake of the band’s May 2 announcement.

If the blockade occurs, Underwood — who basically makes his living from prawning — said he and other fishing crews will respect Native wishes, stay out, and observe.

“We’re going to remain calm and take pictures, and video,” he told the News Leader Pictorial Thursday morning. “We’re trying to take the high road on this. We’re hoping this fizzles out — this is one of the most productive prawn grounds on the coast.”

It’s also where the Stz’uminus, and other people, have harvested food fish for generations — a right Chief John Elliott apparently believes is threatened by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“Stz’uminus First Nation has endured DFO’s frustrating oversight of the fisheries in the Salish Sea for decades,” his May 2 statement reads. “The DFO has repeatedly failed to follow proper Aboriginal Consultation and Accommodation laws, and continues to enact policy reflecting this failure.

“Ongoing mismanagement of the fisheries, leave us no choice: our community must take action.”

Elliott explains he understands a blockade would affect commercial fishing crews.

“Our fight is with the DFO alone, and our hope is to compel them to follow Canadian law when enacting new policy, and change their existing policies surrounding Aboriginal access.”

DFO staff had not answered the Leader's list of questions about the band's concerns, and the government's reaction to the blockade, by press time.

One staffer explained Wednesday the feds were in ongoing talks with the band, and would involve the RCMP, if necessary, to ensure safety.

Underwood was puzzled about the Stz'uminus' fight with the feds — unless DFO is stopping Aboriginal access to their fishing grounds.

Natives are not restricted when and where they can fish, he explained.

"It's basically unlimited access. They can fish year round for food fish."

However, the rub — spawning the band's potential blockade — could lie with federal enforcement of laws banning Natives from commercially selling food fish, he explained.

Underwood noted there's little or no DFO monitoring of Native food-fishing, while commercial crews pay thousands annually for independent monitoring of their catch "to keep us a sustainable fishery."

He stressed Natives have harvested from Salish Sea waters for "20,000 years."

"They should be able to harvest as much as they want, but should they be monitored? Yes. It's a shared resource.

"All sectors should be monitored."

Without proper fisheries' policing, economic fallout from depleted prawn grounds could be dire for fishing families — and fuel racial tension, he warned.

"The less prawns we have, the less we can sell in our stores,'' said Underwood, of the Silver Girl harvesting for Cowichan Bay Seafood, "and that could drive the retail price up."

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