- BC Games
TFN fisherman fighting U.S. over native fishing rights
A Tsawwassen First Nation fisherman caught with $4,000 worth of Dungeness crab about 700 metres south of the Point Roberts border has found himself embroiled in a court case that could have broad implications for First Nations fishing rights.
Steven Stark, 34, is an elected member of the TFN legislature and sole provider for his wife and three children. He is on trial for illegal fishing in the U.S., and faces up to a $10,000 fine or one year in prison if convicted.
But he is fighting the charges, arguing it is his indigenous right to fish in the waters of his ancestors.
Stark began fishing with his father when he was 16. In the nearly two decades since he’s seen a decline of the salmon and crab that has sustained indigenous peoples in the area for hundreds of years.
“I remember times when we used to fish in the Fraser River, as most people do, and the rivers would be full and abundant with fish,” he said. “Today they’re very bleak and not sure where our natural resource has gone.”
Overfishing by commercial fishing operations has forced fisherman like Stark to stray closer and closer to the American border. But he doesn’t point the finger at other fisherman trying to make a living. Instead, he blames the federal government for mismanagement of fisheries.
“If it was managed properly from the get go it would more than enough natural resources to go around and people wouldn’t have to take extra lengths to try to provide food for their families,” he said.
Stark said there’s mixed feelings within the TFN community about his case. Some have told him they think he was in the wrong, but Stark chalks it up to ignorance of First Nations treaties that defend his actions.
He said others have come around to his side after showing them old treaties that were signed guaranteeing aboriginal rights.
The Point Elliott Treaty, signed in 1855 between the U.S. government and Native American tribes of Puget Sound, guarantees fishing rights, though the Tsawwassen people were not included. However, Dr. Bruce Miller, an anthropology professor at the University of B.C., argues the Tsawwassen are related to a Coast Salish U.S. tribe, the Lummi Nation, who did sign the document.
In a report commissioned and paid for by Stark, Miller researched the genealogy of TFN members and found evidence of intermarriage with the Lummi.
“Coast Salish peoples of the period were expert canoe-makers and travelled between communities on the salt water by canoe,” he wrote in the report. “The two communities in question are in close proximity, which made them appropriate for intermarriage.”
Stark will rely on Miller’s testimony to defend himself when he goes to court. Another document, the Jay Treaty that was signed in 1794 between the United States and Great Britain, makes reference to “Indians dwelling on either side of the said boundary line, freely to pass and repass, by land or inland navigation.”
Stark says his people have clear hereditary fishing rights along all of Point Roberts and English Bluff.
However, it remains unclear whether either of these treaties will be recognized or admitted as a defense in Stark’s trial.
“I’m using their words and their laws against them,” he said. “I just want to see if they’ll uphold it.”
Stark freely admits he didn’t know about any of these treaties before he was arrested by U.S. authorities and brought up on charges. But since then his own research has confirmed his own feelings about the border.
“I’ve always known in the back of my mind that line shouldn’t be there,” he said. “I’ve always been told by my ancestors that line was not created for the natives.”
Stark said the prosecutor wants him to plead guilty and isn’t willing to negotiate a plea bargain that would reduce the charges. He’s resigned to the fact this will go to court.
But even if he loses in state court, Stark said it’s not the end of the road.
“We’ll appeal it and then I’ll take it to the Supreme Court,” he said, adding despite the maximum sentence of a year in prison he doesn’t think he’ll see the inside of an American jail cell.
Stark’s next court appearance is set for June 12 in Whatcom County Superior Court.