Commercial fishing boats on the B.C. coast have returned to their home ports after a successful spring herring roe fishery in the Strait of Georgia off Vancouver Island, but opponents of the catch are already gearing up for next season.
The threat of overfishing and the impact a herring population collapse could have on British Columbia’s marine ecosystem, particularly chinook salmon and southern resident killer whales, has conservation, environmental and some Indigenous groups demanding an indefinite suspension of the fishery.
“It’s just a matter of time before the Strait of Georgia herring collapses and all those boats are forced to wait at the dock,” said Ian McAllister, executive director of Pacific Wild, which called for the suspension of the roe herring fishery this year.
“If you left that 20,000 tons of herring in the water it could be the catalyst to rebuild stocks to allow chinook salmon to recover, to allow the starving southern resident killer whales to have enough food.”
But Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists say the herring population in the Strait of Georgia is the healthiest it’s been in almost 70 years, which is the major reason it approved a roe fishery this year.
“I’m looking at a time series that goes back to 1950,” said Neil Davis, the department’s resource management director. “They’re as high as they’ve been in that whole time series.”
Herring roe is a sushi delicacy in Japan, but the tiny silver fish is also ground into food for farmed salmon and other fish, as well as fertilizer. Herring also feed the marine ecosystem as a diet staple for salmon, seals, sea lions, sea birds and humpback whales.
The Fisheries Department heard the concerns of conservation and citizens groups about over fishing of herring and protecting the marine ecosystem, but the scientific data and meetings with industry and local advocates resulted in the decision to open a roe fishery, Davis said.
“Other things feed on herring: seals, sea lions, salmon, who in turn are prey for things like killer whales,” said Davis. “That’s one concern we’ve heard from a number of groups. My response to that is that our first job in managing the resource is to make sure we’re managing it in a fashion that’s sustainable and conserves the resource long term.”
Commercial roe fisheries on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the central coast, and off the Haida Gwaii and Prince Rupert coasts were not held this year due to insufficient stocks.
But Fisheries and Oceans projected a spawning biomass in the Strait of Georgia for 2019 of about 138,000 tonnes and set the total allowable catch for commercial fisheries at just under 29,000 tonnes. The total catch to date in the Strait of Georgia roe fishery for both seine and gillnet fishery combined is about 15,800 tonnes, Fisheries said Wednesday.
Commercial fisherman Darrel McEachern of Maple Ridge said the season went well for him.
“We got ours. We were pleased. DFO does a good job, what else can you say,” he said.
McEachern, 72, said he has been fishing herring since 1973 and this spring they were abundant and the roe catch will be profitable. He said he spent about seven days aboard a 17-metre gillnet packer chasing herring in the Strait of Georgia with other members of his family.
Grant Scott, president of Conservancy Hornby Island, said he could see the seine boats and gillnetters pulling in herring last month from his home on the island, about 200 kilometres north east of Victoria.
Scott said the community celebrates the arrival of the herring with a festival in March, but he views the fishing fleet with concern.
“This is the last one of the five or six major spawn areas really from Alaska to Mexico,” he said. “To think they are managing the last one the way they managed the other five, and it all resulted in over-fishing and the eventual collapse, we just find it sad and a tragedy.”
He said 75,000 people signed a petition calling for an end to the herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia.
Scott said the disappointment of this year’s roe fishery will not deter his group from pushing for changes during the coming federal election campaign and prior to a new herring season.
“We’re going to write an alternate, truly ecosystem-based herring management plan that we hope to have put together by scientists that we want to present to the public next year when DFO brings out their herring forecast,” he said.
Jaclyn Cleary, head of the Pacific region’s herring stock assessment program for Fisheries and Oceans, said there are differing opinions, even among scientists, about whether there should be a fishery for forage species, such as herring.
She said much of the debate she heard this year from people opposed to the herring fishery involved comments about the connections between herring and declining salmon populations.
“We know the importance of herring for chinook based on diet studies,” Cleary said. “We also know that adult herring aren’t in the Strait of Georgia year round. If the science were that simple there wouldn’t be a debate. It’s not that simple. We don’t see these clear relationships between chinook biomass and herring biomass in the Strait of Georgia.”
Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said there was no commercial herring fishery on the west coast of Vancouver Island and her Indigenous groups has suggested on ongoing closure for the next three to five years to allow stocks to rebuild.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press