Herring Spawn: A Springtime Spectacle Threatened by Overharvesting

Reflection on the 2023 spring roe herring fishery and how a century of industrial overharvesting has left Pacific herring populations on the B.C. coast in a perilous state.

As spring arrives, so does a natural phenomenon  that occurs every year along the Pacific Northwest coast: the herring spawn. This springtime spectacle is a breathtaking sight to see, as countless herring gather in massive schools and release their eggs and sperm along the shoreline. In one of nature’s greatest events,  the waters along the British Columbia (B.C.) coast  turn a vibrant turquoise colour and hungry mouths from myriad species gather en masse for the first feast of the season. Once ubiquitous along the coast, spawning events have become fewer, farther between  and smaller than they once were. 

A century of industrial overharvesting has left Pacific herring populations up and down the B.C. coast in a perilous state. This has profoundly impacted First Nations culture and coastal economies, and has left whole ecosystems without their critical, foundational  food supply.  In recent years, the Canadian government has been forced to enact closures on most of the commercial seine and gillnet herring fisheries throughout B.C. in an effort to slow the collapse, or outright disappearance, of herring stocks. Herring collapses typically have long recovery times even when fishing is drastically reduced or moratoriums are put into place. Now coastal communities wait anxiously each spring to see if herring will rebound to healthy abundance, if they return at all. 

“We hear of a few people getting herring, but never enough to sustain their families […] We see that all the other sealife is starting to deplete also. That was a part of our treaty, that we’d be able to fish and hunt […]to carry on our life as we did before. But that is something that was denied to us and the result of our people not being able to access fish. My sister died as a result of liver disease. Our people have talked about challenging things in court, […] on the basis of health. The specialist from Vancouver came over. He came in and told our family this is a well known malady amongst the First Nation women up the coast, because our people for thousands of years, have survived on seafood. The W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council has sent a letter to the minister asking for a moratorium on the herring fishery within the Salish Sea.” – Eric Pelkey, Hereditary Chief of Tsawout of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation


Despite continued concerns over declining populations and calls for a complete moratorium, this season  in the Strait of Georgia (SoG), the net fishery  opened for commercial roe fishing once again.  Even with a 50% reduction in the quota (from 20% to 10%)  since the 2021-2022 fishing season, herring in the SoG are in a critical state. A quota of  6,625 tons (10% harvest rate) was set for this year’s herring season in the S0G, with an allocated total of 4,915 tons combined between gillnet and seine gear types.  The gillnet fishery exceeded their quota, overharvesting herring by nearly 100 tons. The seine fishery also overharvested their quota. 

Spawning biomass for the SoG declined by 26% between 2020 and 2022. Although we do not have all the data yet, biomass is projected to decline an additional 13% in 2023. Preliminary data released to the public  indicates that herring stocks in the SoG are indeed declining further.  In 2022, DFO’s peak sounding (sonar) estimate of Pacific herring for the SoG was 74,000 tons; whereas, in 2023, the peak sounding for herring measured as  73,790 tons. Pacific Wild will be keeping a close eye on herring stocks in the SoG as more data becomes available from survey efforts conducted in 2023. 

However, there is cause for cautious optimism! The first herring spawn was observed in the last week of March on the northeast  tip of Vancouver Island, off the coast of Port McNeill and Hyde Creek (Kwakwakaʼwakw  territory). This was the first spawn on record for this area since DFO began collecting  records in 1950. While one spawning event does not indicate a trend of annual return  in the future, it is encouraging to see herring returning to more extensive parts of the coast.  

In order to allow herring to return and thrive in B.C., Pacific Wild continues to advocate for a complete moratorium on the commercial exploitation of Pacific herring in B.C., excluding the inherent right of Indigenous peoples to harvest herring in spawn on kelp (SOK) fisheries. 

Voice your opposition of B.C.’s unsustainable herring fishery and help protect our coast.