Herring—a crucial keystone species, feeding whales, salmon, pinnipeds and birds—are struggling to recover from over-harvesting, yet more fisheries are planned.
AN EXTRAORDINARY SHOW is taking place almost daily off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
Whale-watching tourists and boaters around East Sooke and Race Rocks watch in awe as 45-tonne humpback whales open their massive jaws while small silver fish dance and jump, attempting to escape. Overhead, thousands of cackling seabirds use the opportunity to pick up dinner.
Seagulls enjoying a herring dinner (photo by Shorelines Photography)
“You get a few thousand sea birds feeding on a bait ball of herring under the water—working it together as a group to put food in their bellies. Then you get the humpback whales coming in and lunge feeding at the surface with their mouths open—big enough to swallow half a small car,” said Brett Soberg, co-owner of Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife Tours.
“In that area there are probably, conservatively between 10 and 20 humpback whales. . . .This is something special. The forage fish are dense enough to pull in these massive eating machines,” Soberg said.
Herring have helped support the resurgence of humpbacks feeding around Vancouver Island after they were almost wiped out by whaling. (photo by Clint William, Showtime Photography)
It is unusual to find herring in the East Sooke and Race Rocks area and the explanation may be a 170-tonne spawn this spring in Esquimalt. It is the first time since the 1990s that herring have spawned in Esquimalt Harbour and Esquimalt Lagoon.
“If this is the beginning of a wonderful trend to have herring returning and spawning off the southern Greater Victoria region, that would be brilliant,” Soberg said.
The show depends entirely on the presence of herring, the forage fish at the base of the coastal food web, meaning whales, salmon, pinnipeds and birds all rely to some extent on healthy herring populations.
However, B.C.’s herring populations are not healthy and conservation organizations fear an upcoming food and bait herring fishery, followed by the larger spring roe fishery could wipe out smaller populations in the Strait of Georgia and, ultimately, lead to extirpation.
Herring stocks collapsed in the 1960s after years of overfishing and, despite intermittent efforts to rebuild, populations have continued to decline. Four out of five of the major herring populations in B.C.—Central Coast, Haida Gwaii, Prince Rupert and West Coast Vancouver Island —remained closed to herring fishing this spring, with the Strait of Georgia the only area remaining open.
Herring stocks have recently spawned in Esquimalt Harbour and Esquimalt Lagoon—the first time since the 1990s. (photo by Clint William, Showtime Photography)
The catch was reduced from 20 percent of predicted biomass to 10 percent, but, after the seiners moved through, the gillnet fleet was unable to complete their allotted catch, bringing in only 4,300 tonnes of the 7,850 quota.
In Haida Gwaii the herring fishery was closed in 1994 after stocks collapsed, with members of the Haida Nation claiming the previous year’s commercial fishery wiped out the population. The herring have not yet returned.
The herring roe fishery kills fish for the roe, as opposed to the Indigenous system of collecting roe from kelp or branches and allowing fish to spawn again.
Jim Shortreed, a herring advocate who works on re-establishing herring habitat, said the food and bait fishery is responsible for the extermination of many local populations.
“They go after these sub-stocks and they don’t know exactly where those stocks spawn, they just know they exist. They find them on their depth sounders and they just go and get them. No one knows where those fish were going to spawn,” he said.
Herring rely on external fertilization, with females laying eggs that are then fertilized by males, so a critical mass of fish is necessary to maintain populations
“When you fish the stock down to a certain level, the fish become inefficient at bouncing back,” Shortreed said.
“Many of our sub-stocks are gone, specifically sub-stocks in Sooke, Victoria, Southern Gulf Islands, Discovery Islands, Campbell River, Sunshine Coast and Cherry Point,” he said.
Shortreed is sceptical that any populations can be categorically protected, especially as the Strait of Georgia stock assessment region stretches from Port Renfrew, around Victoria, through the Gulf Islands and up to Campbell River.
The food and bait fishery in the Strait of Georgia has ranged from 1,759 tonnes to 7,393 tonnes between 2011 and 2021.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is currently considering the quota for the 2022-23 Pacific herring season and the food and bait fishery, will represent a portion of the overall quota for the Strait of Georgia.
The period for public comment ended November 16 and the fishery was due to start about November 20, but, so far, has been delayed.
DFO spokeswoman Lauren Girdler told Focus that Esquimalt and Area 19, which runs from Saanich to Victoria, would not be included in either the food and bait fishery or the much-larger roe herring fishery next year.
Closures are implemented in areas where spawning aggregations have been at low levels, Girdler said. “Most recently, this includes areas in the Strait of Georgia south of Nanaimo and along the Sunshine Coast where spawn survey information and local observations show little to no spawning herring,” she said in an emailed response to questions from Focus.
Conservation is the main priority and scientific surveys and biological sampling programs are carried out in all major herring stock areas, she said.
Rob Morley, executive director of the Herring Conservation and Research Society, an organization funded by industry, said the draft plan calls for the fishery to be held in the area north of Nanaimo, so fish from the Esquimalt spawn would not be at risk.
Stocks in the Strait of Georgia are healthy, said Morley, adding that the fishery takes only a fraction of the biomass.
“I take issue with the idea that stocks in other areas have been wiped out. Where did the fish come from that spawned in the areas they are talking about?” he asked.
“They’re really not individual, separate populations. They’re part of one larger population and [although] most of them go back to the same general area they spawned in, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they go to other areas and that’s why we see these spawns show up in places like Sooke and Esquimalt and Texada Island because they are all part of the same population, they just chose to go somewhere else this year,” Morley said.
All of which gives little comfort to opponents of the fishery who question why, with the history of disappearing stocks, DFO would allow a food and bait fishery this fall.
“We remember the large volumes of local herring stocks which anglers jigged for around Victoria. This continued sustainably for many years until uncontrolled commercial fishing wiped out these stocks,” Wayne Zaccarelli, secretary-treasurer of the Amalgamated Conservation Society said in a letter to DFO.
The science branch of DFO has recognized that the food and bait fishery—with much of the fish used for pet food, fish and aquarium feed and bait—is the primary reason for the extirpation of unique local herring stocks, Zaccarelli wrote.
“These herring are the lifeblood of the ocean which support numerous fish, bird and mammal species. Recent research shows that herring are the primary prey species for chinook and coho salmon,” he said.
Many coastal species rely on herring (photo by Clint William, Showtime Photography)
The Amalgamated Conservation Society, which has ten member associations representing more than 5,000 people, has unanimously voted to recommend closure of the food and bait fishery in the Strait of Georgia.
The Pacific Marine Conservation Caucus, made up of nine conservation groups, in a letter to DFO, said with rising natural mortality and declining biomass, the harvest rate for the annual fishery should not exceed four percent.
The Conservation Caucus is encouraged that DFO is undertaking a pilot program to conduct genetic analyses from at least four spawning sites in the Strait of Georgia and samples from the food and bait fishery catches should also be used to build a baseline of genetic information, said the letter signed by John Driscoll, David Suzuki Foundation fisheries analyst.
Tsawout Hereditary Chief Eric Pelkey, a member of the WSANEC Leadership Council, said letters have been sent to Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray asking that the Strait of Georgia fishery be closed to allow stocks to rebuild, but there has been no official response.
“We’ve had meetings with them, but they want to talk about fisheries in general, not specific species,” Pelkey said.
“I think if they don’t shut it right down, this could go the way of the cod,” said Pelkey, adding that herring used to be ubiquitous and part of everyday life for WSANEC people.
“People have to realize that when the herring go, so will everything. The salmon and the whales,” he said.
For now, there is an astounding resurgence of humpbacks feeding around Vancouver Island after they were almost wiped out by whaling.
However, in addition to the threats of ship strikes, entanglement with fishing gear and climate change, the humpbacks could face a potential prey shortage and herring are vital to their diet with recent research showing humpbacks around northern Vancouver Island rely on juvenile herring for at least 50 percent of their energy requirements.
As Brett Soberg reflects on the excitement of seeing the humpback feeding frenzies, he worries about what might happen if the herring disappear.
“We need to shift gears here and be a bit more sustainable and allow the herring to come back because that just feeds everything,” Soberg said.
Judith Lavoie is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring stories about the natural world, along with the politics around them.