Protect Pacific Herring

The goal

Pacific Wild is working with central coast communities to highlight the importance of herring while also advocating for an end to the unsustainable kill fishery so that stocks can rebuild and a locally-based spawn-on-kelp fishery can flourish.

The issue

The small silver Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) is considered a foundation species for the B.C. coast because of the contribution it makes as an ecosystem driver for both the marine and terrestrial realms. In early spring, the annual herring spawn provides a rush of nutrients at a critical time of year to a plethora of wildlife, including seabirds, marine mammals, wolves and bears. Herring may spawn up to ten times in their lives.

Central coast herring stocks have declined precipitously over the past 100 years, to the point of local extirpation of spawning in many areas. Overfishing is commonly thought to be the main cause, while recovery may also be hampered by changes in water temperature, elimination of elder fish that guided schools through migration and spawning, and increases in predators and competitors. The extent of the herring’s role in ecosystem function in not fully understood, nor is it taken into account in federal fisheries management. In addition, government methods for estimating herring stock returns are highly uncertain. 

For decades, the Heiltsuk and other First Nations have been advocating for a sustainable fishery that would allow central coast stocks to return to their former abundance. However, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) continues to support the corporate-controlled kill-fishery, even against the recommendations of its own scientists. 

The traditional First Nations spawn on kelp (SOK) fishery involves the suspension of tree branches, kelp fronds and other seaweeds in sheltered areas where herring spawn prodigiously in early spring. The roe builds up in multiple layers on the substrate until harvesters collect it, and the adult fish are left to spawn again in the future. In contrast, industrial seine and gillnet fisheries (collectively known as the sac roe fishery) net and kill the herring and export the roe, while the rest of the fish is mainly used for pet food, fish farm pellets and fertilizer.  

In 2016, after months of negotiation, the Heiltsuk Nation announced it had reached an agreement with DFO for managing the 2016 herring fishery within their traditional territory. This new plan promises a reprieve for the threatened herring and a level of transparency and collaboration previously unseen on the coast - but it hasn't come easily. The Nation's focus is now on managing the traditional fishery and pushing to improve and extend the collaborative planning process to 2017 and beyond. Many of our supporters raised their voices to support the Heiltsuk Nation during the 2015 conflict with DFO, which led to the co-management agreement for 2016. We thank you! Stay tuned for updates - we hope to see a long-term commitment to co-management for herring, and agreements reached in other territories on the coast as well. 

The Importance of Herring

Like the foundation of your house, herring is the foundation on which the Great Bear Rainforest is built. It is a small fish with a major role in the lives of nearly every coastal species on land or underwater in BC. It provides an important link between tiny plankton and larger fish, marine mammals and birds.  For millennia, this forage fish has provided sustenance for humans to whales to wolves to birds. Fish, such as salmon, perch, and hake, feed on the larvae shortly after they hatch. Seals, sea lions, whales and numerous types of birds feed on adult herring.

Fisheries managers have argued that climate change and variations in predator abundance have been contributing to coast-wide declines in herring in recent decades. However, many observers point to commercial fisheries as the culprit, which began in the late 1800’s when herring were harvested en masse to make fertilizer and fish oil. An archeology study of fish bones found along the coast of Alaska, British Columbia and Washington (McKechnie, year) showed that one species, herring, was consistently the most abundant and ubiquitous fish in the 171 sites. The study of sites up to 10,000 years old also provides sobering “deep time” evidence of consistent abundance and distribution of herring. Only until the industrial kill fishery started in the late 1800’s did stocks begin to collapse.

Each year, the waters turn black as countless tonnes of herring migrate from offshore waters to more sheltered nearshore bays and estuaries where they spawn en masse. Pacific herring spawns are relatively short-lived, lasting approximately three weeks each year at any given location. In some areas, millions of birds, thousands of sea lions, seals - in addition to orca,  humpback and grey whales all converge on the spawning grounds. The migration of shorebirds to their northern nesting grounds and the northern grey whale migration are time perfectly to feast on the annual herring spawn.


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