West Coast wildlife depends on herring—and there’s a model for bringing them back to the Salish Sea.
THE WILDLIFE IN SPILLER CHANNEL, just north of Bella Bella, is alive and well this fall. Over a thousand bald eagles on their southward migration were feeding on the returns of chum and pink salmon alongside other top predators—black bear, grizzly and wolf. Sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, several humpbacks and northern resident killer whales worked the channel edges.
At the entrance, where the breakers roll in, sea otters have returned, triggering a rebound of kelp forests. Juvenile fish are surviving better in these underwater nurseries. Overwintering sea ducks, like harlequins and surf scoters, fished alongside 500 Western grebes, listed as threatened. Along the channel, small buoys and lines tied to trees mark the traditional non-kill fishery of herring roe of the Heiltsuk First Nation. The foundation for the health and well-being of everyone in Spiller is herring; Spiller Channel is famous for them.
Herring spawn off the south end of Denman Island (Photo courtesy Jake Berman)
Spiller is also famous for the Heiltsuk Nation’s prolonged stand-offs against the commercial “kill” herring fishery (which mostly is used for fish farm feed and pet food). It is an important place—a coastal Standing Rock—where the nation has stood up to pressures that push species and cultures to the brink: overharvesting, overhunting, overfishing and overlogging. Spiller is also close to where the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill occurred in Seaforth Channel in 2016, for which the nation launched their own emergency response.
With their success in stopping the commercial “kill” fishery, the trophy hunts, and commercial logging, along with winning the court case against the Texas Kirby Corporation responsible for the fuel spill, the Heiltsuk have set a course for how to bring life back to the land, the sea and the culture, with herring as the foundation. They have shown the way that abundance can return here too, in the Salish Sea.
All around the Salish Sea there are Spiller Channels waiting to rebound; bays where the open ocean has been calmed by the geography of granite and forests of kelp. People have tended these fish for millennia as they return year after year to spawn on the lush eelgrass meadows. The young fish follow the older fish back to a spawning site (what elders refer to as the scouts) and typically remain loyal to that site.
The Salish Sea had dozens of spawning bays with different spawning windows from Ganges SYOWT, the first place the herring come in spring, according to WSÁNEĆ hereditary chief Eric Pelkey, to the late spawners of Cherry Point near Bellingham. Some herring leave on their migration to the coastal shelf, some never leave, and with this mix of diversity of locations, timing and behaviours, the rest of the coastal community can thrive all the way up the food chain, through chinook to the Southern Resident killer whales and the human communities.
For many elders like Pelkey, whose chieftanship runs from STAUTW (Tsawout) on the Saanich Peninsula to SYOWT (Ganges) on Saltspring Island, the decimation of these herring stocks indicates a fundamental flaw with the fisheries model being used by Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). “It seemed like as soon as there was a sign that herring were starting to come back again and into Ganges Harbour, DFO would open it up commercially and seine boats would come in and just scoop them up. Eventually that just killed off that herring run.” The fight that began with his grandfather, Louie Pelke, has been long and lonely—and repeated by every coastal nation.
In Lekwungen territory, the Gorge was their Spiller Channel until the commercial fisheries of the 1930s wiped them out. Ross Bay, James Bay and Ogden Point lost their herring to the reduction fisheries by 1938; Juan de Fuca in 1940, Hotham Sound and Redonda, pre-1950.
In WSÁNEĆ territory, Saanich Inlet, Coles Bay, Deep Cove, Patricia Bay, Goldstream and Finlayson Arm all lost their herring to the next wave of commercial fisheries of the ’50s and ’60s, and so it continued around the Salish Sea. Howe Sound, 1966; Malaspina Strait, 1975; Jervis Inlet, 1978; Fraser River, Bedwell Harbour, Campbell Bay, Lyall Harbour and Winter Harbour in 1979; Sechelt, Pender Harbour, Cowichan Bay, Ganges and Fulford Harbours, 1983; Powell River, 1988; Boundary Bay, 1992.
Some bays, like Nanoose and Yellowpoint, lost their spawns during the “wild west” herring bonanzas of the ’80s, rebounding temporarily in the ’90s, only to disappear again. These local extinctions usually followed the winter or spring fishery.
In 2011, Simon Fraser University archeologist Dana Lepofsky started the Herring School forum, recording elders from Alaska to Washington who told of seiners coming into their bays at night, taking every last fish and silencing their spring.
Today, the only place that herring have continued to spawn at any scale is Baynes Sound around Hornby and Denman Island. Yet DFO persists in its claim that it has a workable model and a well-managed fisheries maintaining “historic levels.” Few outside of DFO and industry seem to agree with the model, which is based on taking 20 percent of the total weight (biomass) of the fish predicted and comparing it to a baseline catch in 1951 to assess “historic highs.”
Pelke lists its flaws: it treats all the herring in the Salish Sea as one big population; it targets bigger fish; it doesn’t consider the ecosystem or cultural stewardship; it uses 1951 as a baseline which, as he points out, was a low point for herring during the excess of the reduction fisheries.
Even with an announcement this October from federal scientists that the model is predicting a decline of what they call the Strait of Georgia (SOG) population by one third, there is no move to end the winter or spring fisheries.
The WSÁNEĆ Leadership Council (WLC) of Tsartlip, Tseycum and Tsawout First Nations, like the Heiltsuk, are inviting others to join them in calling for changes. The WLC states that, “Herring have been under increased pressure from commercial fishing interests since the 1960s when herring populations reached a critical low. Since then, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Coastal First Nations, including the WSÁNEĆ, have been unable to agree on policies that prioritize the health of the herring population over commercial fishing interests.”
Inspired by the Heiltsuk’s successful lobbying efforts to have DFO agree to a moratorium on commercial herring fishery in places like Spiller, the WLC are cohosting an advocacy event this November called HELIT TTE SLON,ET (Let the Herring Live) with 25 local First Nations, and 50 community organizations invited. As the WLC state: “This is the first time in the Strait of Georgia’s history that such a large and diverse group of interests have joined together to oppose the questionable practices of DFO.” Part of the gathering will be hearing elders and independent researchers who have worked together for a decade in research forums providing the evidence to refute DFO’s position. They will also explore case studies like the Heiltsuk for recovery efforts. Another historic first is that all political representatives of Saanich and the Gulf Islands from the Islands Trust up through Adam Olsen MLA and Elizabeth May MP are supporting this initiative.
Co-hosts like Conservancy Hornby Island, which gathered over 96,000 signatures to stop the herring fishery last spring, say DFO didn’t listen to the decades of warnings, including the latest protests when stocks could have been left to recover. Director Grant Scott, an ex-commercial fisherman, states “it took a collapse of Strait of Georgia (SOG) herring to finally show up the flaw in DFO’s modelling. To be precautionary, there should be no commercial herring fishery here until the populations of herring recover throughout the SOG, not just between Parksville and Comox.” Like Scott, co-host Vanessa Minke-Marten, a fisheries scientist with Pacific Wild, is “supporting First Nations to assume their rightful control and place in herring management.” That includes the integration of traditional and Western science for the full ecosystem: fish, sea birds, mammals, and cultures who rely on herring for their survival.
Management models that incorporate spatial population dynamics, it seems, are being used everywhere on the coast but here. When Washington State saw their 21 distinct spawning stocks, like Cherry Point, flicker out, they stopped the herring fisheries in the early 1980s. Lepofsky’s archaeological evidence backed up elder testimonies prompting a call for changes in policy to align with Indigenous inherent and legal rights. The SFU work expanded into the Ocean Modelling Forum (OMF) in 2015 with 20-plus institutions, including a DFO researcher, joining First Nations in inter-disciplinary research. DFO has responded to calls for policy changes from the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuu-chaal-nulth, and in small closures with the Q’ul-lhanumutsun Aquatic Resources Society (QARS).
With this sizeable body of evidence, researchers Andre Punt and his co-authors are unequivocal that the old model has “consequences throughout the social-ecological system, including loss of trust in management bodies and conflict...” Loss of trust is top-of-mind for co-host Lockhart MacLean of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society: “There is an issue here that DFO is whitewashing harvest rates based on fictional biomass. The 20 percent harvest rate is a joke with these wild predictions. DFO’s lack of precaution is driving the last viable spawn in the Salish Sea to extinction.”
Another research team under Daniel Okomoto recently found that managing stocks the way Pelkey advises, watershed by wateshed, “diversifies community benefits.”
And the benefits need diversifying. The herring industry is controlled by one man, Jimmy Pattison, and all profits flow to his private empire which, according to BC Business, earned $10.6 billion in 2018, padded out by fuel subsidies for his seine boats. Pattison is counting on a reallocation of tonnage from the spring to the winter fishery which is supposed to start November 21.
The social licence doesn’t appear to be on Pattison’s side. Ocean Modelling Forum researchers have identified the variety of factors having impacts on herring, which range from pollution to climate change, but the unique threat, which only exists on the Canadian side of the Salish Sea (and is easily remedied), is the fishery; a fishery that is now proven to cause local extirpations.
The WSÁNEĆ response is CENENITEL, which means “helping one another to restore home.” CENENITEL could look like a comprehensive herring recovery program that supports local nations and communities in recovery efforts to improve water quality and eelgrass, traditional reseeding of bays with herring roe, or assistance to displaced herring fishermen. Spiller Channel is returning, and the Salish Sea has one last chance to do the same.
Briony Penn is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction books including The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, A Year on the Wild Side and, to be released in the spring, Following the Good River: The Life and Times of Wa'xaid, a biography with Cecil Paul(Rocky Mountain Books).