“Everything out there, the salmon, the seals, the sea lions, all types of fish up to the whales rely on the herring to survive.” —Tsawout hereditary Chief Eric Pelkey
THERE IS A BASIC BELIEF, passed down through generations of First Nations for millennia, that ensured Indigenous people along the BC coast not only survived, but thrived.
“You never, never, ever take everything. You only take what you need,” said Tsawout hereditary Chief Eric Pelkey. He was considering the fate of Pacific herring, a vital link in the food chain extending from plankton to killer whales, and an important food source for Indigenous communities.
Tsawout hereditary Chief Eric Pelkey
That rule has been broken time and time again by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which, for decades, has allowed unsustainable catches by commercial fishers, and ignored pleas from conservation organizations and Indigenous groups to shut down the fishery in order to allow herring stocks to recover, say critics.
Pelkey, community engagement coordinator with WSANEC Leadership Council, representing Tsartlip, Tseycum and Tsawout First Nations, wants a complete shutdown of the herring fishery and a detailed plan to rebuild stocks. But, over the last five years, there has been little response to repeated calls for a moratorium. Last year, an effort by the Gwa’sala-Nakwaxda’xw Nation to obtain an injunction to stop the herring fishery in Smith Inlet was turned down by the federal court.
However, as fears grow that the foundational species may not rebound, there are signs that Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray, who describes the stocks as being in a “fragile state,” is looking carefully at fishing pressures, though many question if it’s too little too late.
Failure to catch allotment a telling sign
This year, four out of five areas around the BC coast—the west coast of Vancouver Island, Prince Rupert, Central Coast and Haida Gwaii—remained closed. In the Strait of Georgia, the one area that remained open, the catch was reduced from 20 percent of predicted biomass to 10 percent.
“This approach extends the cautious approaches taken in recent years, with additional limits on harvest and considers the decline of the wild Pacific salmon and the impacts of the recent floods and landslides on fish habitats in British Columbia,” said Claire Teichman, Murray’s press secretary, in an emailed response to questions from Focus.
Seining Pacific herring in the Salish Sea near Parksville
In March, DFO closed the mackerel and herring spring fishery on the East Coast in an effort to rebuild depleted stocks. In April, regulations to accompany changes to the Fisheries Act named 30 stocks that will require a rebuilding plan if numbers fall below a reference point.
On the west coast, those stocks include Haida Gwaii Pacific herring. The Haida Gwaii herring fishery was closed in 1994 after stocks collapsed, with members of the Haida Nation claiming the previous year’s commercial fishery had literally scooped up all the fish. An attempted opening by DFO in 2014 was successfully opposed by the Council of the Haida Nation and stocks have not yet recovered.
Fears for the future of Pacific herring were exacerbated this spring when, after seiners had scooped up their quota in the Strait of Georgia, the gillnet fleet was unable to complete their allotted catch, bringing in only 4,300 tonnes of the 7,850 tonne quota.
Rob Morley, executive director of the Herring Conservation and Research Society, an organization funded by industry, said the reason for the shortfall was that spawning took place further north than expected and over a very short period of time.
The gillnet fishery waited for several days, in order to catch the high-yield females, which come into shore after the males, but, with the change in spawning time, less fish were caught, he said.
“Also, because the quota had been reduced, there were fewer boats, with less time to fish,” Morley said.
Others believe the lack of fish shows incontrovertibly that Strait of Georgia herring are disappearing.
“I think the lack of ability that fishermen had to catch fish this year is really telling in itself,” said Emma Page, Pacific Wild marine campaigner.
“We usually see the herring quota filled within a matter of days, regardless of what the stock assessment turns out to be. This year, the fishery remained open for two weeks without any additional catch. That has really never happened before, so, even if the stock assessment isn’t complete yet, we can draw some pretty telling conclusions from the fishing activity,” she said.
It is possible, but unlikely, the herring spawned in different areas and times, Page said.
“Herring for decades have been spawning in the same general location and DFO has been on the ground doing assessments and dive surveys and spawning surveys prior to opening the fishery and then they opened the fishery because the spawn was occurring,” she said.
Grant Scott, chair of Conservancy Hornby Island, said the idea that spawning had occurred in different areas is “dreaming in Technicolour.”
“There’s people all over the coast looking for them and these are not fish quietly spawning in the shallows where you can’t see them. This is a huge, white, milky stream in the water,” he said.
Herring spawn off the south end of Denman Island (Photo courtesy Jake Berman)
DFO is conducting dive surveys to assess the number of eggs deposited by spawning herring in the Strait of Georgia and that information, which will be used to assess stocks and plan for the future, will not be available until later this year.
Science, informed by the surveys, will then form the basis of gear allocation, openings and harvest levels for next year, according to DFO.
Award-winning author and herring advocate Briony Penn, PhD, questions why the precautionary principle is not immediately being applied to the herring fishery.
“From Victoria to Haida Gwaii, coastal communities are experiencing a silent spring, up and down the coast, and now the last spawn is on the brink,” she said in a news release.
Pelkey also does not believe the herring moved or changed spawning times.
“We have been in touch with First Nations all over the coast and, it seems to me, it is widespread. There was no spawn in almost all areas and, where there was spawn, it was severely depleted,” he said.
There are pockets, such as Ganges Harbour and Fort Rodd Hill, where small shoals of herring are appearing, and some people are trying to transfer eggs on kelp and boughs to traditional spawning areas, Pelkey said. But, to succeed, the entire area must be closed to fishing, said Pelkey.
Pelkey wonders whether people have grasped the gravity of ripple effects if herring disappear.
“It will actually end up killing the salmon fishery. Almost everything out there, the salmon, the seals, the sea lions, all types of fish up to the whales rely on the herring to survive. It would kill just about everything out there in the Salish Sea,” Pelkey said.
It has been about 20 years since Pelkey has seen signs of a full herring spawn, but, a decade ago, there was a “pretty lively herring spawn that appeared in Saanich Inlet,” he said.
“Automatically DFO opened it up to commercial fishing and wiped it out completely again. It was really, really maddening to us. Our people went out to try and block the fishing, but, by the time the blockade happened, the commercial fishermen had set their huge nets and wiped out the stock,” Pelkey said.
Industry and activists diverge on numbers
The small silver fish, with a high fat content, can live for eight to 10 years and can spawn multiple times, leaving sticky eggs stuck to rocks, kelp or eel grass. Once the eggs are laid, usually in mid-March and early April, the males release huge amounts of sperm, turning parts of the ocean milky white.
Herring roe on eel grass (Photo by Jim Shortreed)
Females can lay up to 20,000 eggs a year, but only about 20 to 30 percent of the fertilized eggs survive to hatching, according to “The Fighting Fish” a research paper written for Pacific Wild.
The juvenile herring then have to survive predators, pollution and climate change, with only one herring out of 10,000 returning to the shallow waters to spawn.
While First Nations traditionally collected eggs from spawn on kelp or cedar boughs, allowing the fish to return and spawn again in future years, the commercial fishing industry kills the fish and strips the eggs from females. The roe is sold as a delicacy, with most of it going to Japan.
Pacific Wild estimates that 88 percent of the catch—parts of the fish remaining after the roe is stripped—is not used for human consumption, but is ground up for pet food and salmon farm food.
It is a number disputed by Morley, spokesman for the commercial fishing industry, who said the roe makes up between 15 and 18 percent of the fish. Between 40 and 60 percent of fish caught are frozen and exported whole to be processed in China or Japan where much of the fish is used for food products, said Morley, who also chairs the Herring Industry Advisory Board, which provides advice to DFO.
“The overall amount that goes to human food out of the roe fishery is probably closer to 35 or 40 percent and that is not much different from many other fish products or some animal products,” Morley said.
“Nothing goes to waste, it’s made into fishmeal that goes into livestock and fish food and some pet food. If they weren’t eating that, they would be eating something else,” he said, adding that the fishery is worth between $35-million and $40-million annually.
Morley also claimed that, contrary to popular belief, herring populations in BC have grown by more than 50 percent over the last 10 years. “The total spawning population on the coast of BC is now about 185,000 metric tonnes. I know that is totally contrary to what people are telling you, but they are not reading the scientific stock assessment reports,” said Morley, who believes the Prince Rupert area, Central Coast and West Coast of Vancouver Island should have been opened for fisheries this year.
“Some of it, I think, is being done because of reconciliation issues with First Nations,” said Morley, adding that some Nations wanted commercial spawn-on-kelp fisheries this year, but Murray turned them down.
The rosy picture of recovering stocks is not what members of Conservancy Hornby Island have seen.
Scott, who, in addition to chairing Conservancy Hornby Island is a retired commercial fisherman, said Strait of Georgia herring are at risk of going the same way as herring in other areas of the coast and there needs to be an immediate fishing moratorium for at least five years and a recovery program put in place to rebuild stocks.
Chinook salmon are just one of the species that rely on herring
“It’s an amazing, important little fish in the middle of the food chain. The southern resident killer whales need salmon and then there’s the cod, halibut, gray cod—everything ultimately relies one way or another on these forage fish,” said Scott, who wants to see a program to buy out the licenses of herring fishers and provide retraining for people in the industry.
“Normally, Hornby and Denman Islands are the epicentre of the last remaining herring spawn. This year, it has just been a catastrophe. What I do know for sure is that I haven’t seen this limited and short duration of spawn in my 20 years of looking out over Lambert Channel. It’s a sad story,” he said.
It was distressing to see the gillnetters continuing to search, but not finding fish, Scott said. “Those fish were just not there.”
Petition calls for moratorium on herring fishery
A 2020 study prepared for Conservancy Hornby Island by John Neilson, a research scientist with DFO for 30 years, advocated for a Marine Protected Area in Lambert Channel to protect the herring.
The study identified the northern Gulf Islands as the most important area on the coast for herring and pointed out that other areas have shown “little or no recovery” after commercial fishing ended.
In addition to fishing, herring in the Salish Sea face other threats such as “increased temperature and acidity, changes in prey fields and competition from other species,” Neilson wrote.
Catherine Gray, Conservancy Hornby Island executive director, said a moratorium is needed on both the roe fishery and the smaller bait fishery, which is due to open in the Salish Sea on May 1.
“They’re planning to kill off another 900 tonnes of fish and these could be the resident herring,” she said.
A petition asking for a moratorium on the herring fishery has now been signed by 173,820 people, said Gray.
Although most eyes are on the Strait of Georgia fishery, Jim Shortreed is hoping that, one day, large herring shoals will return to Victoria.
From the 1950s until the 1970s herring were overfished around Victoria and, so far, have not recovered, said Shortreed, who wants DFO to work with First Nations on plans to rebuild stocks.
“For instance, in Victoria, one year, there were 16,000 metric tonnes of herring and then there were 8,000 next year and then 200 and then they became zero,” Shortreed said.
“It’s pretty clear it was overfishing,” he said, adding that climate change and increased predation also play a role.
Although there have been a few minor spawning spots on the South Island this year, even herring in the Gorge Waterway, which for years has been fished recreationally with jigs from bridges, appear to have disappeared, Shortreed said.
“In 2016 an estimated total of 3,445 herring were caught from the Craigflower Bridge, equivalent to 4.5 fish per hour of fishing. This year, one fisherman has caught six fish since January despite regular effort,” he said.
Shortreed would like to see an emphasis on roe-on-kelp fisheries.
But first, the herring must be persuaded to return.
“The water quality is good in the Gorge and there’s lots of spawning habitat—waiting for herring to make it home again,” he said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world.