Are Pacific herring threatened in the Strait of Georgia?

A fishing boat leaves French Creek Harbour during the annual roe herring fishery in March. || Photo by Tyler Hay
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Conservation groups have called for a moratorium on the commercial roe herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia, but Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and fishers both say there are enough spawning fish to support continued harvest.

The roe herring fishery was open for about one week in March this year and the total catch was roughly 11,292 tonnes of the 11,944 tonne quota, according to the DFO’s final fishery notice on April 12. It predicted the total mass of herring in the Strait of Georgia this year to peak at 101,000 tonnes.

“No one wanted to mention how many herring came back this year,” said Josh Young, gillnet representative on the Herring Industry Advisory Board (HIAB). “There can never be a good news story.” 

The DFO noted these are “rough in-season estimates” and are not used in formal, scientific assessments. Detailed post-season analysis informs the DFO’s decisions, it said. 

Screen Shot 2021 05 04 at 9.48.15 AM
DFO graph showing herring spawn vs catch in the Strait of Georgia.

Last year the DFO predicted a mass of about 75,000 tonnes and validated a total catch of 9,090 tonnes, of the 9,240 tonne quota.

The Strait of Georgia has been the only commercial Pacific roe herring fishery open annually since the central coast closed in 2008. The central coast has been open to spawn on kelp harvesting since 2014, a method which allows harvest of the roe without killing the fish.

Conservation group Pacific Wild started a campaign calling for a moratorium a couple years ago to support First Nations communities, according to marine campaigner Emmie Page. She said the organization wants the fishery to be viable for future generations.

“We have seen increasing declines in the fishery, as we have seen four out of the five fisheries close,” she said. “We obviously are seeing huge declines in the last fishery in the Strait of Georgia and we still are fishing at 20 per cent biomass.”

Screen Shot 2021 05 04 at 9.49.13 AM
DFO graph showing herring spawn vs catch in B.C.

Young has been fishing herring for about 31 years out of Pender Harbour and said a moratorium would take away a vital part of his and other fishers’ incomes.

“It’s very significant to our local economy,” he said. “They want to sort of dehumanize commercial fisherman and think we just want to kill every last one.”

This year, Young said the fish were more abundant than last and he believes the 20 per cent catch rate set by the DFO has been working in the Strait of Georgia.

Page said Pacific Wild is concerned about sustainability in herring fishing because the fish is a vital part of the Salish Sea ecosystem.

“Often it can be hard for the general public, or even government to care about species that are less charismatic, so we try and focus on how herring feed chinook salmon, which feeds orcas,” she said.

The DFO uses a limit reference point to manage herring, which is a threshold to ensure serious harm does not occur to the stock, according to Alexandra Coutts, communications advisor for the DFO.

“The herring stock in the Strait of Georgia is currently well above the limit reference point, which means that there are sufficient herring available for ecosystem needs, such as Chinook salmon feeding and harvesting by humans,” she said in an email to Oceanside News. Nobody from the department was available for an interview.

“Most of the years we really harvest, we are far below the 20 per cent mark,” said Lyle Peirce, a third generation fisherman based out of Comox. He said he is concerned groups calling for a moratorium are not open to conversations with the industry.

“I’d love to be able to sit with [conservation groups] and work something out, but honestly they are are just dead against the fishery and I don’t know how you bridge that gap,” he said, adding he would like to see the groups sit at the table when HIAB meets annually with industry professionals.

“We have First Nations, we have sports [fishers], we have science, we have the [DFO]. Everybody sits around a table and has an open discussion,” Peirce said. “Why does that group not come participate with us and listen?”

The current fishery in the Strait of Georgia has been active since 1973, with the exception of 1986, when only bait fisheries occurred, according to the DFO.

“In some areas, notably in Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island, stocks have been low and have not been productive even in the absence of commercial fisheries,” Coutts said.

Though other areas have not shown signs of recovery, she said the Strait of Georgia has continued to be productive and support the commercial fishing industry.

“There was an increasing trend in estimated spawning biomass from 2010 to 2016, which coincided with a decline in estimated natural mortality that began in the late 2000s,” she said. “The index showed a decline from 2016 to 2019 and then increased in 2020 to levels higher than 2016.”

“In some areas, notably in Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island, stocks have been low and have not been productive even in the absence of commercial fisheries,”

Alexandra Coutts, communications advisor for the DFO.

The value of herring is in the roe and Pacific Wild is concerned much of the fish is wasted after harvest. The fish is often used for fishmeal products, such as fertilizers, pet food and food for fish farms.

Conservancy Hornby Island advocates for a government program to buy back commercial fishing licenses and quotas and retrain fishers in new industries or fisheries, according to campaigner Rebecca Benjamin-Carey.

“We are hoping to make sure that the fisherman know that we are not trying to shut them down, we are not against the fisherman,” she said. “This program would actually help them, so it is kind of like a win-win for everybody.”

Peirce said fishing is his culture and he believes all fishers are conservationists, “our boats, our gear and our licenses are worthless if there are not healthy stocks.”

“This is my life and you are not retraining my crew with McDonalds jobs because quite frankly, we make more than that out here fishing,” he said.

Fishers have to rely on more than one species, according to Young, and shutting down the herring fishery could shut down businesses. He said he holds licenses to fish prawn, halibut, herring and salmon.

“No one cares more about what is going on in the salmon industry than salmon fishermen,” he said. “It’s our livelihood and without that right now and with the herring stocks looking so healthy — if we can’t fish stocks that are healthy, basically there’s no commercial fishing.”

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