CHEMAINUS, B.C. - Vancouver Island Indians are patrolling reservation beaches with Canadian government approval to ward off Vietnamese-Canadian clam fishermen they say are plundering their traditional resource.
Seven representatives of the four Mid-Island Tribal Council bands have been trained through a federal program to guard the beaches in the Chemainus area, about 37 miles northwest of Victoria.
The patrols are essential to save clam resources that have been so thoroughly harvested that some beaches have been unproductive for three years, said council chairman Ray Harris.
"The Vietnamese have a really different approach to the resource," he said. "If the regulatory authority isn't doing anything about it, we have to."
Harris said tempers have been short between the two sides in the past.
"Firearms have been drawn in the past, and violent threats have been made on both sides," he said. " With our program, we are establishing a clear presence to ease the tension."
The Indian tribes say about 650 members living on welfare depend on clam sales to supplement their incomes. But good market conditions attracted non-native harvesters, which sparked the need for government restrictions on harvesting.
A spokeswoman for the Vietnamese community said clam harvesting is equally important to her people.
Half of British Columbia's 3,000 Vietnamese fishermen are also trying to supplement welfare and unemployment incomes through clam digging, said Kim Tran, the wife of a Vietnamese fisherman based in nearby Nanaimo.
She said she was not aware of tensions between the Indian and Vietnamese communities.
Son Le, a Nanaimo-based spokesman for Vietnamese clam-diggers, estimated that fewer than 100 Vietnamese diggers violated regulations by digging out of season or on Indian beaches.
"Many don't understand English. When I see them on reserves, I let them know right away they could get in big trouble," Le said.
Le said the situation has improved over the past year and he was aware beaches were now being patrolled by natives.