After Another Industrial Fishery, Herring Still Need Our Help

The seine and gill net boats spread for miles over the waters of the Strait of Georgia during the 2019 roe herring fishery. Photo by Ian McAllister.

Another industrial herring fishery has come and gone, and with it, the opportunity to protect the foundation of the B.C. coast. Despite strong opposition from the public, pressure from local politicians and communities, and challenges from multiple conservation groups, Minister Jonathan Wilkinson approved the 2019 seine and gill net fisheries for herring roe in the Strait of Georgia.

This year, Pacific Wild joined Conservancy Hornby Island and the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards (ADIMS) in their efforts to close the fishery happening right on their doorsteps. Those efforts brought herring to the attention of the public (and to the floor of the House of Commons), resulting in a heated standoff that played out during this year’s fishery.

When it comes to resource-based industries, it’s easy for critics to focus on the people on the ground, while resource managers—the ones ultimately in charge of responsible stewardship—remain out of sight in their offices. We want to take this opportunity to acknowledge that our visuals have featured herring harvesters, and to emphasize the need to focus on management, and not the people who make a living on the coast. We all need to hold Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) accountable to managing fisheries under the precautionary principle.

At Pacific Wild, our opposition to the fishery comes directly from the history of herring mismanagement by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in British Columbia. We’ve seen herring populations collapse in Haida Gwaii, Prince Rupert, Central Coast, and West Coast of Vancouver Island, leaving the Strait of Georgia as the last area to be targeted by the roe fishery. Underlying this legacy of collapse is DFO’s management approach, which relies on error-prone population models and a risky 20% harvest rate. The fishery is shockingly wasteful: the carcasses (up to 88% of the catch) are reduced into meal and oil to feed farmed Atlantic salmon. Meanwhile, herring roe (only 12% of the catch) is declining in value, earning fishers a fraction of what they made three decades ago.

There are serious consequences to herring mismanagement. Year after year, these tiny silver fish feed countless species on our coast. The loss of herring has been called cultural genocide for coastal First Nations, who have lost access to important traditional foods and cultural practices.

For our top 10 reasons to suspend the fishery, click here, or read on to learn more.

The seine fleet on the water in the Strait of Georgia in 2019. Photo by Ian McAllister

WHERE HAVE ALL THE HERRING GONE?

Pacific Wild was on the herring grounds in March, when the seine and gillnet fleets removed more than 15,000 tons of herring from the Strait of Georgia.

The fishery didn’t take the 21,000 tons that we feared, but it is not entirely good news. Just like in 2018, the fleets had trouble finding enough large herring. It took days for the boats to catch what they once would have caught in minutes. Hoping for more fish, the gillnet fishery stayed open for 21 days.

The bad news is that decreases in fish size reflect changes to the population structure that can herald a collapse. Exerting more effort to catch fewer fish is also a sign that the population is not as healthy as DFO suggests.

This year’s herring fishery may be over, but the debate is just beginning—over the future of this coastal ecosystem.

Southern Resident orcas, J-50 and J-16. Photo by Tasli Shaw

HERRING SUPPORT STRUGGLING SALMON AND ORCA POPULATIONS

Chinook salmon love herring—that’s something you’ll hear from anyone who had fished on the coast. Herring are important food for young Chinook salmon in coastal areas and make up 62% of the adult diet. The prospects for Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea are dire: half of the populations in southern B.C. are at-risk, and in Puget Sound they are endangered. Dwindling forage fish are one factor contributing to their decline.

Chinook salmon make up 80% of the diet for endangered Southern Resident orcas. DFO has allocated millions of dollars toward recovering the Southern Residents, including increasing Chinook salmon availability. Meanwhile, the herring caught annually in the roe fishery could feed hundreds of thousands of Chinook salmon.

Herring feed species that contribute hundreds of millions of dollars annually to our economy—and employ thousands of people. In comparison, the landed value of the herring fishery is less than $20 million, and it generates fewer than 400 full-time jobs. Why is the government risking so much for this wasteful fishery?

the numbers do not add up

Industrial herring fishing has a long history in British Columbia, beginning in the 1870s. By 1910, government officials were already noticing declines. Spawns have since disappeared from Burrard Inlet, the Sunshine Coast, the Southern Gulf Islands, southern Vancouver Island and throughout the Broughtons.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada claims the herring population is at historic highs, but their baseline data only go back to 1951. Indigenous knowledge and archaeological records show that herring were more abundant and widespread in the Salish Sea before industrial fishing.

Managing herring to extinction

In the House of Commons in January, Minister Wilkinson defended the herring fishery, saying it is based on science. But even DFO scientists admit that their models over-predict the number of herring—errors that caused overfishing in the Strait of Georgia in 2005, 2006, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2017. To prevent overfishing, DFO scientists recommended reducing the fishery allocation to 10%, but in 2019, the agency once again approved a 20% harvest rate.

Herring experts criticize the DFO for treating the Strait of Georgia as one large aggregate population—rather than many, closely-situated, smaller populations. Indigenous traditional knowledge, supported by recent science, describes how intergenerational learning allows herring populations to home to unique spawning areas: elder herring teach young herring where to migrate and spawn. When elder herring are caught in fisheries, local knowledge is lost, and individual spawns disappear.

Communities are demanding that DFO manage the fishery differently to protect their local spawning populations. Solutions do exist: when models incorporate the spatial structure of metapopulations, they make better predictions and reduce the chances of overfishing.

The herring fishery feeds Atlantic salmon farms

The most offensive thing about the industrial herring fishery is that it takes food from wild Pacific salmon and feeds it to farmed Atlantic salmon, which already spread disease and threaten the survival of British Columbia’s wild salmon.

The carcasses of herring caught in the industrial roe fishery are reduced into meal and oil, which are used to manufacture aquaculture pellets. A typical aquaculture feed used in B.C. fish farms contains 5% herring meal and 2% herring oil. Of the 15,551 tons of herring caught in March, over 13,500 tons could go to feed farmed salmon.

Read more about the supply chain and value of the fishery here.

Carrie Humchitt, Louisa Housty, and members of the Heiltsuk Nation successfully protested the DFO roe fishery in the waters of their territory in 2015. A reduction fishery is a fishery or that operates with the purpose of reducing fish to oil and other low value products is illegal under section 31 (1) of the Fisheries Act.

The BIG little fish

Herring are small, but they have a huge community of supporters. During this campaign, over 75,000 people signed Conservancy Hornby Island’s petition and almost 2,500 people contacted politicians to demand a moratorium. In February, a poll found B.C. residents were 3-to-1 (57% to 16%) in favour of halting the fishery, because it reduces food for the coastal food chain (McAllister Opinion Polling).

From political efforts by the Tla’amin Nation, Powell River and the Islands Trust, to spawning restoration work in Howe Sound, False Creek, and Mayne Island, to Hornby Island’s Herring Fest, communities are taking action for herring. We are determined to use our voices to amplify theirs.

many thanks

Our campaign was undertaken in partnership with Conservancy Hornby Island, the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards, Sitka Society for Conservation, SeaLegacy, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, with the help of photographers, filmmakers, and researchers. To our many supporters: thank you!

In the coming months, we will continue to work with local communities and conservation groups to bring public attention to the fisheries that threaten our #BIGLittleFish.

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