Seeing red over British Columbia’s herring fishery

Herring play a key role in the greater ecosystem, and in more recent decades, have been the focus of largest commercial fishery in B.C., eclipsing all salmon species combined. A decision by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada could endanger the herring.

Other than salmon, few species in British Columbia hold the ecological, cultural and economic importance of Pacific herring, Clupea pallasi. Pacific herring are a cornerstone of the marine food web and support a diversity of marine predators. In addition to wildlife, they have sustained coastal First Nation communities for many thousands of years and, in more recent decades, have been the focus of largest commercial fishery in BC, eclipsing all salmon species combined.

The relatively sheltered waters of the BC’s Salish Sea still supports a substantial herring fishery, whereas other parts of the coast have been closed for a number of years due low abundance.  Each spring, herring that spend their summers gaining mass off the west coast of Vancouver Island return to spawn in the Strait of Georgia; these are considered to be the migratory herring. There exist small, perhaps even remnant, population(s) of resident herring, which remain year-round in the Strait of Georgia. Some of these fish are even known to be genetically different from the migrants.

Until this year, the Strait of Georgia herring fleet focused almost exclusively on the spring-spawning migrant herring population, which lowers the impact on resident stocks. In a dramatic change, the November 2011 fishing plan allocated a significant increase of herring (280 tons in 2010 to 6,000 tons in 2011) to the winter food and bait fishery. This winter fishery will target a mixed stock that consists of an unknown proportion of the resident population(s), along with the much larger migratory population.

The decision by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to transfer 6,000 tons of allocation from the roe fishery to the winter food and bait fishery is based on the assumption that the food and bait fishery targets the same population of herring as the roe fishery, an assumption not justified by the scientific literature. Prior to opening a fishery on these stocks, this assumption needs to be vetted through a public scientific process that demonstrates no harm will come from such fishing actions. Yet this has not happened.

The Raincoast Conservation Foundation believes that DFO’s decision ignores evidence that a resident herring population exists in Georgia Strait, that vulnerable resident stocks are likely to overlap with the winter food and bait fishery and that opening a fishery at this time and in this region could have substantial consequences for resident herring.

Further, we believe this decision is inconsistent with both the precautionary principle and DFO’s stated ecosystem approach to fisheries management. Herring play a key role in the greater ecosystem. For example, they are a major source of food for Chinook salmon. According to the DFO’s website, “Central in the marine food web, Pacific herring are a key fish prey contributing 30 to 70% to the summer diets of Chinook salmon, Pacific cod, lingcod, and harbour seals in southern BC waters. Herring eggs constitute an important part of the diets of migrating seabirds and gray whales, and invertebrates.”

In turn, Chinook salmon are a major food source for B.C.’s endangered southern resident killer whale population.

In a letter sent to Fisheries and Oceans Canada in early November, we asked them to reconsider this decision until public and scientific attention could be given to the potential impact this catch increase has at this time and in this region. We have not heard from DFO. The food and bait fishery opened Nov. 7, 2011.

A version of this article was first published at The Huffington Post on November 28, 2011.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.