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A community-led approach to COVID-19

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Science  24 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6502, pp. 385-386
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd2107

This spring, the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) First Nation on the West Coast of Canada cancelled their 2020 commercial spawn-on-kelp herring fishery season in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic (1). This fishery constitutes a central economic and cultural activity (2), the rights to which the Nation fought to have recognized through precedent-setting efforts, including a successful Supreme Court ruling (3) and the occupation of a federal fisheries office, which led the Canadian government to engage in more meaningful co-management (4). The Haíɫzaqv fishery closure demonstrates the effectiveness of informed, responsible decision-making by community members themselves. Community- and Indigenous-led governance and decision-making authority, as exemplified by the Haíɫzaqv Nation, should be recognized and upheld across the world.

The Haíɫzaqv closure decision was made locally, by the fishers in the community. The closure bore substantial costs, both directly (such as lost income) and indirectly (such as lost eligibility for government income benefits). However, opening would have brought out-of-town members to the Nation's village of Wágḷísḷa (Bella Bella) to participate. With fishers working in close proximity, the fishery would have risked bringing and spreading COVID-19 to this remote community with limited medical capacity. An outbreak would pose heightened risks to Elders (5)—cultural leaders and knowledge holders who comprise most of the remaining fluent speakers of Haíɫzaqvḷa, the Haíɫzaqv language. These potential consequences were prioritized by the fishers, who considered the trade-offs and decided that opening was not worth the risk.

The Haíɫzaqv fishery closure contrasts with decisions by other governments and industries in Canada to continue resource extraction despite COVID-19 risks (6). It also demonstrates an alternative to centralized management approaches. State-led fisheries have faced criticism for making decisions that are isolated from the nuances of individual communities (7), for viewing resources through a narrow lens of stock productivity and extraction (8), and for paying too little attention to complex social outcomes (9). COVID-19 requires a coordinated worldwide response, but empowering at-risk communities and those most directly affected by resource extraction [and movement of people (10)] provides a powerful and just means for supporting well-being and resilience (5, 11, 12).

References and Notes

  1. R. v. Gladstone, 2 S.C.R 723 (1996).

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