The federal government has lost a legal battle with five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island, and as a result, sport fishermen in B.C. may lose their right to fish for Chinook and coho on a priority basis.
In setting its catch limits, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has historically given sport fishermen first dibs for certain species like Chinook and coho, ahead of commercial fishing.
But on April 19, the BC Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Ahoushat First Nation and four other Nuu-cha-nulth nations that were part of the court challenge.
The latest decision follows on an earlier decision, in which the nations won the right to sell fish. In the past, First Nations were given priority to fish, but only for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Selling the fish was illegal.
That has slowing been changing through a number of court challenges, with a number of First Nations being granted commercial fishing rights.
A previous court decision gave DFO two years to respond and implement new allocations plans, said Hugh Braker, vice president of the First Nations Fisheries Council of B.C.
DFO failed to do so, according to Braker, so the five Nuu-cha-nulth tribes went back to court for an order forcing DFO’s hand and won.
In a news release, federal fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc said he will order changes to fisheries management policies, in response to the decision.
“As an immediate step, I have directed Fisheries and Oceans Canada to review the Pacific salmon allocation policy,” LeBlanc said. “We will work in collaboration with Indigenous groups and all stakeholders to renew and co-develop this policy.”
The decision is very likely to be able to extend to other First Nations, not just the five Nuu-cha-nulth tribes, Braker said.
“For the First Nations people it’s a very big deal – not just for the Nuu-cha-nulth, but for all of B.C.” Baker said. “DFO has been giving priority to recreational fishermen for coho and spring salmon for a long time and has been a thorn in the side of first Nations all over B.C.”
The ruling will have impacts for sport fishermen in B.C. when it comes to Chinook and coho.
“I wouldn’t encourage the sports fishermen to get all riled up about it or get concerned about it,” Braker said. “I think when we all get up tomorrow morning, there is still going to be a sport fishery for Chinook and coho, just as there is a sport fishery for sockeye.
“We have an aboriginal right, which is recognized in the constitution, to fish in priority to everyone except conservation, when it comes to sockeye and yet it works quite well.”