Herring is a cornerstone of marine biodiversity on the B.C. coast. However, a wasteful commercial sac roe fishery is threatening herring stocks and the sustainable First Nations roe-on-kelp fishery that dates back thousands of years.
Herring and the Great Bear Rainforest
The herring spawn is one of the most spectacular marine events on the Pacific coast, yet the importance of this foundation species as an ecosystem building block has been tragically overlooked. Because of the sheer range of creatures that feed on herring, this fish plays a vital role in supporting the Great Bear’s rich biodiversity. New archaeological research suggests that herring have been in abundance and helped to sustain human cultures and natural ecosystems on the coast for the past 10,000 years. Industrial-scale reduction fisheries in the early 20th century led to a major collapse of herring stocks in the 1960s. Stocks recovered after a period of closure, but remain tenuous under the current fisheries management regime.
Pacific herring is a forage fish widely considered to be a keystone or foundation species because of its huge productivity and wide interactions with a range of predators and prey. Preferring to spawn in sheltered bays and inlets, the adult herring begin making their way from the open ocean to the spawning grounds in the late winter. When the time comes to spawn, a single female may lay as many as 20,000 eggs, producing a staggering egg density of 6 million eggs per square metre. The resulting pulse of biomass attracts a huge array of predators including sea lions, humpback whales, wolves, bears and a host of bird species. Individual fish may return to spawn up to 10 times in their lives.
First Nations Harvesting
First Nations have a long history of sustainably harvesting herring roe for trade and consumption using a method that involves collecting eggs that have been deposited on kelp or hemlock branches suspended near the shore. Such a method allows the spawning herring to live on and spawn again or be eaten by predators, therefore maintaining the herring's critical ecosystem function.