The BC Herring Fishery
The BC government divides the coast herring population into 5 categories and defines only the Straight of Georgia population as healthy. Despite closure on the rest of the coast, the commercial fishery there is still permitted a 20% harvest annually, a number in heated contest. In 2018 the fisheries minister famously permitted a similar harvest threshold despite the advice of her own scientists recommending less than 10%. In 2019 the commercial fisherman will harvest 200 million herring or 28,000 tonnes in this small population alone.
Why are Herring Important?
Herring are considered a cornerstone of the north Pacific marine environment. Important food source to a variety of creatures most recently the focus has been on Chinook Salmon. Simply, herring make up 80% of a chinooks diet. The most prized marine sport fish in BC waters, these salmon prop up the lions share of an annual $500 million angling industry in the province. They also make up large majority of orca diets in these waters. Without herring the whole web falls apart.
These fish also continue to provide an important protein source to coastal first nations as they have for thousands of years. The natural spawning method is to deposit eggs on kelp for fertilization but tree boughs can be submerged and then extracted from spawning sites for egg harvest.
So Why Harvest Them?
Herring fisheries were once very lucrative fetching $5000/lbs but today hover between $100-$700/ lbs. The roe, once the choice of Japanese consumers is no longer considered a delicacy and the price has plummeted. However the Department of Fisheries and Oceans continues to search for a market for this surplus. Other common uses include fertilizer, bait and fish meal.
Herring is also commonly used as bait to fish for Chinook Salmon in the ocean and is extremely effective. In an ultimate irony, the herring fishery that can provide the most important bait for the recreational marine sport fishery although the herring harvest is largely opposed by the same sport fishing sector. It’s an inconvenient truth that the bait used is harvested in fisheries that are detrimental to the target sport fish themselves. Slippery slope?
Fish Meal is commonly used in pet food. Also guilty are farmed atlantic salmon. Although aquaculture efficiencies have continually improved to minimze animal protien, too little will cause skeletal disfigurement. In short you need fish meal. So you harvest the food fish that wild salmon require to feed to introduced farmed fish.
I think the lesson here is not that we are actively responsible for the deaths of cute orca calfs but that a failed fishery that should be hung up is so desperate to find consumers and that the benefit in no way overshadow the costs.
Spawn on Kelp the Alternative
As with so much of our environmental policy the damage would be forgivable if there wasn’t such obvious alternatives. Alexander Mackenzie even jotted down depictions of Nuxalk herring fisheries where the fishers would harvest kelp from the ocean littered with herring spawn. A delicacy for over 10,000 years for local first nations the Japanese have found a taste for the rare treat. Conducted with no damage to the adult fish, the roe can be taken with far less damage to the ecosystem. The survivability of eggs is extremely low so the fishery can be conducted with far less impact than adult net fisheries where mortality is 100% of adult fish caught and the entire potential of their offspring.
In the end of the 2019 fishery, small spawn on kelp commercial fisheries were permitted. This was in addition to the damage inflicted by the net fisheries. As is often the case DFO is always looking for every single harvest opportunity they can. More an industry lobby than fish manager, recreational anglers are no stranger to this. Whether DFO is opening sockeye gill net fisheries, the seine boats and finally a small recreational harvest, OR allocating halibut to commercial fisherman while installing closures and slot limits on rod fishers, the department is in the game of carving up the pie to the highest bidder.
The “Sustainable” Fishery Supported by Science
The argument from commercial fisherman and DFO alike is that the herring management is based on science- the science that says a harvest can maintain herring at current levels- that the fishery is sustainable. Sustainable: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
But this is fundamentally a different debate. If herring are vital to chinook and chinook vital to orcas and all are seemingly depressed then the goal should be population rebound. When we speak of other threatened species we talk of recuperation. How can we turn 10 caribou into 100; turn 5 bears into 20 bears; turn 3 rhinos into 100. Yes the science might say we can maintain herring stocks at this diminished level while commercial fishing them but is that really the depressed goal?