Members of Tseshaht First Nation have blocked the boat launch at Clutesi Haven Marina as they wait for a response from the DFO. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Alberni area First Nation protests over fishing rights on Somass River

Peaceful Tseshaht demonstration took place in front of Department of Oceans and Fisheries office

A breakdown in negotiations between Tseshaht First Nation and the Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO) culminated in a blockade of the Clutesi Haven Marina boat launch in Port Alberni on Wednesday evening (Sept. 2).

Tseshaht First Nation fishes under an economic opportunity (EO) agreement with the DFO. This year, Tseshaht refused to sign the EO agreement for sockeye fishing in June, as the nation wanted to negotiate a number of issues, especially around the allocation of salmon. The DFO had allocated a total of 20,800 sockeye for Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations to share, out of a predicted return of 280,000, which Tseshaht councillor Hugh Braker says amounts to less than 15 fish per person for the year.

“We are strongly of the view that such an allocation does not reflect the importance of salmon to the Tseshaht, the needs of Tseshaht or the aboriginal title and rights of Tseshaht,” said Braker in a letter addressed to Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Bernadette Jordan on July 14. “We believe that in times of low returns, our access to salmon is compromised and our rights are placed second to the commercial and recreational fisheries.”

RELATED: Somass River sockeye fishery estimates cut in half

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Negotiations broke down further this week. The chinook run began at the end of August, but Braker says the DFO has yet to sign an EO agreement that would let Tseshaht First Nation fish for chinook.

“Tseshaht has already missed the first two weeks of the 2020 chinook fishing season,” said Braker in another letter to Jordan on Sept. 2. “Your staff’s refusal to sign the agreement has already cost Tseshaht families hundreds of thousands of dollars as they have been denied access to their jobs for the first two weeks of the chinook fishery season.”

DFO regional director of communications Louise Girouard stated that the DFO has not signed the agreement because Tseshaht did not agree or follow provisions in the draft agreement for the sockeye fishery. In the absence of an agreement, Tseshaht proceeded with several “unauthorized” sockeye fisheries earlier this summer, said Girouard

“The absence of a signed agreement during the sockeye fishery unfortunately created an unstable situation and was detrimental to other harvesters, including Hupacasath,” she said.

After an unsuccessful meeting with the DFO on Tuesday, Sept. 1, members of Tseshaht First Nation gathered outside of the DFO office in Port Alberni on Tebo Avenue to peacefully protest fishing rights on the Somass River. Many members of the nation feel they are being punished by the federal government for raising their concerns.

“They’re taking away our Aboriginal rights. They’re not even allowing us to fight back,” said fisheries negotiator Martin Watts. “They can’t be the judge and jury—that’s what courts are for.”

“If we don’t get an income out of this fishery, where does that leave us?” he wondered out loud. “Do they want us all to file bankruptcy?”

The DFO office in Port Alberni is currently closed, with most staff members working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Tseshaht elected chief councillor Cynthia Dick said on Tuesday that organizers chose the location because the conflict is between Tseshaht First Nation and the DFO—not any other fishing groups.

“Our families are struggling right now,” she said. “This is already challenging enough with COVID-19 and the impacts it’s having on our community. It’s time to come to a resolution and go to the table with the solutions that we need.”

However, with no response from the DFO, members of the nation decided to blockade the boat launch on Wednesday, Sept. 2 as they wait for an answer. The blockade lasted for a few hours, and Watts took to Facebook after the protest to apologize for the inconvenience to local fishers.

“Tseshaht had a statement to make not only to our local DFO office but to our federal,” he said on Facebook. “This was a low impact place we felt was necessary to be heard.”

Tseshaht First Nation has now sent letters to Jordan, as well as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asking the federal government to find a resolution and sign the agreement.

The DFO, meanwhile, has committed to working with Tseshaht First Nation to support a “longer term agreement” for upcoming fisheries.

“DFO remains committed to substantive negotiations over the fall and winter regarding Tseshaht’s outstanding concerns, and remains committed to authorizing Food, Social and Ceremonial fisheries for Tseshaht harvesters as appropriate based on returns and consistent with allocations,” said Girouard.

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John Gomez leads members of Tseshaht First Nation in a song during a peaceful protest outside of the DFO office in Port Alberni on Sept. 1, 2020. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Members of Tseshaht First Nation sing and drum during a peaceful protest outside of the DFO office in Port Alberni on Sept. 1, 2020. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Members of Tseshaht First Nation sing and drum during a peaceful protest outside of the DFO office in Port Alberni on Sept. 1, 2020. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Two protesters record from a high vantage point while members of Tseshaht First Nation sing and drum during a peaceful protest outside of the DFO office in Port Alberni on Sept. 1, 2020. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

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