Protect Pacific Herring

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 spawn-on-kelp fishery that dates back thousands of years.

The Importance of Herring

Like the foundation of your house, Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) form the foundation on which the Great Bear Rainforest is built. This small silver fish plays a major role in the lives of nearly every coastal species on land or underwater in British Columbia. Like other forage fish, herring are an important link between tiny plankton and larger animals, from humans to whales, wolves, fish, and birds.

Each year, in early spring, the waters shine with silver as countless tonnes of herring migrate from offshore waters to nearshore bays and estuaries to spawn together. Pacific herring spawns are short-lived but spectacular natural events. In the Great Bear Rainforest, millions of birds and thousands of sea lions and seals converge with orca, humpback and gray whales to feed on herring. Surf scoters and gray whales time their northward migrations perfectly to feast on the annual herring spawn. Even bears and wolves come down to the tideline to eat herring eggs. Herring can live to spawn up to ten times in their lives.

Herring were consistently abundant all along the B.C. coast for millennia. A recent archeology study of First Nations sites from Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington found herring were the first or second most abundant fish species at nearly all 171 sites, which dated back 10,000 years (McKechnie et al. 2014).

The Issue

Herring populations on the central coast, and throughout B.C. waters, have declined precipitously over the past 100 years. The factors that affect herring populations are complex: water temperature, food availability, predator and competitor populations. However, many observers point to rampant commercial fisheries, which began harvesting herring en masse in the late 1800’s to make fertilizer and fish oil. In the 1960s, following decades of extremely high catches, herring populations crashed coastwide. After a short closure, commercial fisheries were reopened. Now, herring no longer spawn in many of their former spawning sites on the coast. Four of the five major herring populations in B.C. have declined to near-historic low levels.

For decades, the Heiltsuk and other First Nations have been advocating for a sustainable fishery that would allow herring stocks to rebuild. However, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) continues to open the industrial “sac roe” fishery, even against the recommendations of its own scientists.

In 2016, after years of hard-fought battles and many more months of negotiation, the Heiltsuk Nation announced it had signed a Joint Management Plan with DFO for herring within their traditional territory. The Nation’s focus is now on managing the traditional fishery and pushing to improve and extend the collaborative planning process into the future. Many of our supporters raised their voices to support the Heiltsuk Nation during the 2015 conflict with DFO, which led to the joint management agreement for 2016. We thank you!

In 2019, Pacific Wild began working with local communities on Hornby and Denman islands to raise public awareness about the herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia. It is our ongoing goal to improve protection for herring in this important region. Check out our blog for a summary of this year’s campaign. Below, you can review DFO documents, which describe the dire status of Pacific herring populations in B.C. and the approved fisheries catches for 2019.

First Nations Harvesting

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 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.

The traditional First Nations spawn on kelp (SOK) fishery involves the suspension of hemlock branches, kelp fronds, and seaweeds in sheltered spawning areas. Female herring lay eggs in multiple layers on the leaves. When harvesters collect the SOK, the adult fish are left to spawn again in the future. In contrast, the “sac roe” fishery, industrial seine and gillnet boats net schools of herring just before spawning. The roe, which is only 12% of the catch on average, is removed from the female fish for export to Japan. Most of the carcasses from the male and female fish are processed into feed for Atlantic salmon raised in open net-pens, which jeopardize B.C.’s wild salmon populations.

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Casavant, B. & Pacific Wild Alliance (2021). The fighting fish: A historical review of our relationship with pacific herring in British Columbia [policy white paper]. Victoria, B.C.: Pacific Wild.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2016). Pacific herring [web log]. Ottawa, Canada: Government of Canada. Retrieved from:

Fox, C.H., Paquet, P.C., Reimchen, T.E. (2015). Novel species interactions: American black bears respond to Pacific herring spawn. BMC Ecology, 15(14). 

McKechnie, I., Lepofsky, D., Moss, M.L., Butler, V.L., Orchard, T.J., Coupland, G., Foster, F., Caldwell, M., & Lertzman, K. (2014). Archaeological data provide alternative hypotheses on Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) distribution, abundance, and variability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(9), 807-816

Pitcher, T.J. (2017, November 30). Herring Aid: can new ecosystem-based science save the herring? [Video file]. Hornby Island Herring School. Retrieved from

Surma, S., Pakhomov, E.A., Pitcher, T.J. (2018). Energy-based ecosystem modelling illuminates the ecological role of Northeast Pacific herring. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 588, 147- 161.

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