First nations members have right to sell fish

[pullquote]In an apparent victory for native fishing rights, the Supreme Court of Canada has refused to re-examine a B.C. court ruling that members of five first nations have the right to make a living selling the fish they catch in their traditional territory.[/pullquote]

By Vancouver Sun March 30, 2012

The Supreme Court of Canada said Thursday it won’t review the case, which has been seen as a rebuke to the current federal fisheries regime. The lower courts have ruled that members of the five communities – which are scattered along the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island – have fished in those waters for centuries.

As a result, the Nuu-chah-nulth people have inherent rights to fish “for any species within certain defined territories,” and to sell the fish for profit, the B.C. courts found.

John Rich, counsel for the communities, said Canada’s current fisheries regime on the west coast – which began to develop in the 1950s – has pushed first nations out of the fisheries business because regulations are too cumbersome. He also said the government should negotiate with the Nuu-chah-nulth people to find a way forward.

The B.C. trial judge ruled that Canada has a duty to consult and negotiate with the Nuu-chah-nulth people in order to ensure that their rights are being accommodated and freely exercised.

The first nations involved include Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo’s home community of Ahousaht.

Rich said the Nuu-chah-nulth people have sold fish “from tribe to tribe well before contact with Europeans.”

As proof, he points to stories from 18th-century Spanish explorer Juan Perez, who, upon his arrival on the west coast of the New World, wrote of the people who sold him fish from their canoes.

“They could fish, they were fishing, and the government is making it difficult for them,” said Rich.

He said federal fishing regulations – which have been growing with the industry since the 1950s, governing everything from the number of licences and boats allowed in each operation to acceptable gear and fishing locations – made the process too expensive for small operations.

Rich said, ideally, the government would change the regulatory scheme to allow first nations to fish from their community to their chosen capacity.

Jamie James, fisheries manager for the Mowa-chaht/Muchalaht Indian Band, said negotiations with the government are already underway.

Since the original 2009 B.C. court decision, he said, his community has been working with the department of fisheries and oceans to implement a “mutually agreeable fishing plan.”

But, 60 years on from the demise of their traditional fisheries, jobs are scarce in the region, he said.

“It’s every man for himself looking around for jobs,” he said, adding that, since the pulp mill in nearby Gold River closed, there are “not many job opportunities” available to the 300 band members who still live on-reserve.

As is its custom, the Supreme Court gave no reason for its decision not to review the case.