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.

Pacific Wild comments on DFO Draft 2018/2019 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) for Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii)

About Pacific Wild:

Pacific Wild is a non-profit conservation organization based in British Columbia. We are committed to defending wildlife and their habitat on Canada’s Pacific coast by developing and implementing conservation solutions in collaboration with First Nations communities, scientists, other organizations and individuals. Since 2010, we have worked alongside the Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations to document the crucial importance of Pacific herring to the ecological and cultural integrity of the B.C. coast.

We have the following concerns with the Draft 2018/2019 IFMP for Pacific herring, released by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on December 7, 2018:

1. The ecosystem’s reliance on herring is not quantified. Herring form a foundation for the entire coastal ecosystem of British Columbia, supporting numerous economically, ecologically, and culturally significant species, from Pacific salmon to seabirds to humpback whales. These species provide important commercial and recreational fishing opportunities and support the substantial tourism industry in B.C. However, the Biological Synopsis in Section 2 of the IFMP inadequately addresses herring’s important ecological role as prey for these other species. As DFO managers, your role is not only to conserve herring stocks for future fishing opportunities, but to prevent negative impacts on the ecosystem. Without estimates of the quantity of herring required to support populations of other species, it is difficult to assess the effects of herring fisheries on the ecosystem. Therefore, the maximum harvest rates outlined in the IFMP cannot be considered “conservative,” as is stated on page 24.

2. Haida Gwaii and Central Coast populations are failing to recover from overfishing. In the last five years, First Nations have taken legal and direct actions to prevent the total depletion of herring populations in their territories. For example, members of the Heiltsuk nation occupied the DFO office on Denny Island in 2015 to protest the commercial roe fishery opening on the Central Coast. In the same year, the Haida nation won an injunction against the commercial roe fishery in Haida Gwaii due to the risk of irreparable harm. Despite the leadership of these nations, and a period of low fishing pressure, the Haida Gwaii and Central Coast stocks have not rebounded. In the Status of Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) in 2018 and Forecast for 2019 [Pre-approved Draft], DFO managers state that the Haida Gwaii and Central Coast stocks fell to low biomass and low productivity states rapidly, following a period of high biomass. These past failures to predict extreme fluctuations in herring stock abundance suggest that the high predicted abundance of Strait of Georgia herring for 2019 is no guarantee of that stock’s future biomass or stability.

3. The IFMP is using the wrong baseline for measuring herring population abundance. Comparing current population estimates to those from 1951 provides an incomplete picture of the decline of herring since commercial fishing began in 1876. It is well established that B.C. herring populations experienced high rates of exploitation until a coast-wide collapse in 1967. According to historical records compiled by the SFU Herring School, patterns of spawning and abundance were already altered by 1910 ( Archaeological and historical records could be integrated with Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge to generate better estimates of pre-1950s abundance (e.g. McKechnie et al. 2014), rather than using already-depleted populations as a baseline. In order to conserve remaining genetic and life-history diversity, DFO must estimate stock trajectories, set biological limit reference points (LRP) and provide harvest advice relative to historical population sizes.

4. Reducing the harvest rate is the best way to avoid over-harvest. According to the Management Strategy Evaluation conducted by DFO in 2018, the catch-at-age stock assessment models for herring overestimate spawning biomass, which leads to over-harvest. Since 1986, over-harvest has occurred “frequently” on the Central Coast (Status of Pacific Herring in 2018: page 10; Figure 11), and in the Strait of Georgia, harvest exceeded the intended 20% harvest rate in four of the last ten years (page 11; Figure 11). The Management Strategy Evaluation found that reducing the harvest rate from 20% to 10% was “the most effective means of mitigating stock assessment errors;” yet, the IFMP assigns a 20% harvest rate for the Strait of Georgia in 2019. To improve effectiveness--and public trust--in the herring management system, DFO managers must, at a minimum, implement the lessons of their internal evaluations.

5. The commercial herring fishery places too much pressure on the Strait of Georgia stock. According to the Status of Pacific Herring in 2018, Strait of Georgia herring have risen from 22% of the coast-wide catch in 1990 to 95% of the coast-wide catch in 2018 (page 4). In 1990, approximately 9,000 tonnes of Strait of Georgia herring were landed, compared to approximately 21,000 tonnes landed in 2018. In 2019, the Strait of Georgia stock will be the only one fished for roe. While the coast-wide catch has declined with herring abundance in the last thirty years, the quantity of fish taken from the Salish Sea has more than doubled. DFO is placing all of their herring eggs in one basket. This is dangerous, because the 2018 estimates of spawning biomass and natural mortality and the 2019 prediction for the Strait of Georgia are highly uncertain (Status of Pacific Herring in 2018, page 10; Figure 9d). Until there are enough data to determine whether the trajectory of the Strait of Georgia population has changed, this population should not be fished commercially.

6. The public comment period is inaccessible to the public. The short time frame allowed for public comment is inappropriately timed, occurring during a holiday period. As a result, there is minimal awareness and input from the general public. The timing of approval for the 2019 fisheries quotas so close to the opening date of the fisheries does not allow for public recourse. In addition, past and draft versions of the management plan should be posted on the DFO website for public download, instead of available only by emailed request.

7. Ultimately, we find that DFO is not operating according to their own precautionary principle. Until DFO can produce models that accurately reflect the dynamics of herring stocks, their response to environmental and anthropogenic factors, and the effects of declining coast-wide herring abundance on other important species, herring should not be fished commercially in B.C.


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