The commercial herring roe fishery in the Salish Sea may be the final nail in the coffin of chinook, resident orca and seabirds.
By Stephen Hume (Originally published in the March-April 2019 edition of Focus Magazine)
In June of 1893, a small steam tug thumped past Nanaimo. Abruptly, the sea began to seethe. It was a herring school so vast it took three hours to traverse. The school was 70 kilometres across.
A century earlier, Captain George Vancouver’s log for June 1792 recorded another astonishing sight—whale spouts at every point of the compass. They were humpback whales. Herring provide up to half a humpback’s daily energy requirements.
The herring school reported 125 years ago was only one of many spawning in the Salish Sea. From February to mid-summer, milt turned the water milky. Each female laid up to 134,000 eggs upon eelgrass, kelp fronds and the hemlock and cedar boughs that First Nations have been placing in the water since time immemorial to harvest the sticky masses they called “skoe.”
Herring spawned in Brentwood Bay, Esquimalt Harbour, Long Harbour, Plumper Sound, Kuleet Bay, Baynes Sound, Lambert Channel, Fulford Harbour, Squamish, Semiahoo Bay, Nanaimo Harbour, Sansum Narrows, around Puget Sound and at an unknown number of smaller locations. Even today the occasional remnant of a herring run through Greater Victoria’s Gorge Narrows draws crowds.
First Nations herring camps were everywhere. Herring bones represent the single most abundant species found in excavations of coastal First Nations sites.
Yet we know of that immense herring school witnessed off Nanaimo only because the tugboat crew thought it so remarkable, they told a federal official. And in 1906, he mentioned it in one of those dry reports to Parliament that gather dust.
Today, although fisheries experts doggedly insist that herring in the Salish Sea are sufficient to sustain a roe harvest, some data are worrisome. One survey from 2009 shows 53 percent of major historic herring spawning areas in the Salish Sea now in serious decline.
Seining Pacific herring in the Salish Sea near Parksville
Courtenay-Alberni’s NDP Member of Parliament Gord Johns asked at the end of January for a moratorium on harvesting roe herring. Jonathan Wilkinson, the Liberal fisheries minister from North Vancouver, responded by recommending a commercial harvest quota of 25,760 tonnes from the Salish Sea (with a 30,000 tonne cap).
Of five herring fisheries areas off the BC coast, three are closed and one is restricted to traditional roe-on-kelp harvests. Only the one in the Salish Sea is deemed to have sufficient stock to support a commercial fishery. “As I said, we make our decisions based on science,” Wilkinson said. The uninvited question, however, is this: If science is so good at predicting abundance, why are 80 percent of herring sites now closed?
The chorus of reassurance should not surprise. We’ve fished stocks to collapse before, amid repeated assurances that the fisheries science shows harvests to be sustainable. Tony Pitcher, a scientist at the University of British Columbia specializing in aquatic ecosystems, noted the irony 20 years ago. “The failure of fisheries science, paradoxically one of the most sophisticated mathematical fields within the discipline of applied ecology, is creating both trauma and denial among its practitioners…These failures are chronic and well-documented and are commonly responded to by many of our colleagues in a range of voices that seek to deflect and deny,” he wrote.
In the 1950s, overfishing of Japan’s herring led to a collapse. In the 1960s, the California sardine fishery collapsed. Herring fisheries in Alaska and BC were closed in the 1960s after overfished stocks collapsed. Overfishing destroyed herring stocks off Iceland, Norway and Russia around the same time. In 1972, the overfished Peruvian anchovy fishery collapsed. In 1992, Canada’s Atlantic cod went the way of the herring, sardines and anchovies. Cod stocks that had supported Newfoundland fisheries for 500 years suddenly fell to one percent of what it had been at its maximum biomass.
Fisheries managers frequently blame predictive failures upon oceanic changes they can’t forecast. The North Pacific is often referred to as a “black box” in which mysterious things happen which affect salmon, herring, tuna and other fish. An anthropologist might describe this as magical rationalization—when the emperor of science turns out to wear no clothes, blame unseen, unknowable forces after the fact.
Pitcher had another observation regarding colleagues who blamed environmental changes for fishery collapses: “Remember that these supposedly delicate fishes have survived 100 million years of sweeping and cyclic environmental changes, including a global catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs…!”
What fish stocks apparently don’t survive is hubris.
One common factor in these serial fisheries disasters is that regulators were convinced harvests were sustainable—until they suddenly weren’t.
If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing for British Columbians, perhaps this will. A global survey by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization concludes that 85 percent of all wild fish stocks are now overexploited, depleted, or recovering from severe depletion—and current science suggests recovery, while possible, is far from certain. “Many species have been hunted to fractions of their original populations. More than half of global fisheries are exhausted and a further third are depleted,” the UN agency reported in 2012. It suggests that our next generation may inherit barren oceans. At current rates of harvest, it notes, the world faces collapse of all wild seafood species currently being fished. Think herring. Then think chinook, coho, ling cod, rock fish, halibut, and so on.
THIS SHOULDN’T BE NEWS. Twenty years ago, a team of eminent fisheries scientists at the University of BC offered a similar caution. Daniel Pauly and Johanne Dalsgaard, in a paper published in the prestigious journal Science entitled “Fishing Down the Food Webs,” wrote: “Marine fisheries are in a global crisis, mainly due to open access policies and subsidy-driven over-capitalization…The global crisis is mainly one of economics or of governance.”
They warned that shifts in fish harvests from large predators to smaller fish, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, implies “major changes in the structure of marine food webs.” And, “It is likely that continuation of present trends will lead to wide spread fisheries collapses…”
They argued that instead of focusing on catch—the doctrine of maximum sustained yield—fisheries management must recalibrate for aggressive rebuilding of fish populations within functional food webs left alone inside large “no-take” marine protected areas.
Since 1935, with the full sanction of federal authorities, we’ve done the opposite with herring. Industry extracted six million tons of herring from BC waters, at first for human consumption but then mostly for reduction into fish oil and fertilizer and, for the last 50 years or so, purportedly to sell herring roe in Japan. I say “purportedly” because critics claim most herring caught in the roe fishery—100 percent of the males and about 90 percent of the females—actually wind up as feed for pets and farmed fish.
This creates another ethical conundrum. Critics complain that federal law bans the use of wild fish for non-human consumption. Section 31, sub-section 1 of the federal Fisheries Act prohibits converting wild fish into “fish meal, manure, guano or fertilizer, or for the manufacture or conversion of the fish into oil, fish meal or manure or other fertilizing product.”
Of course, there’s a loophole in sub-section 2. It gives the fisheries minister discretion to exempt any wild fish from the requirements of sub-section 1.
Herring spawn off the south end of Denman Island (Photo courtesy Jake Berman)
Just to put the total herring harvest into big picture-perspective, we’ve now prevented more than 43 billion herring from spawning. That number represents about 2.8 quadrillion—yes, that’s quadrillion—herring by eggs never laid. Of course, not all herring eggs hatch, and not all that do will survive to spawn in adulthood. But herring killed as eggs have zero chance of survival. Their genes are erased from the reproductive pool. They are not even potential forage.
Thus we forego future herring to provide tidbits for Japanese gourmands who destroyed their own herring stocks. Meanwhile, First Nations foragers in BC are denied their own ancient traditions. This raises ethical questions about the sincerity of promises to First Nations.
The Douglas Treaties, which govern half a dozen Coast Salish tribal groups on southern Vancouver Island, are clear. In exchange for access to First Nations lands, those nations are guaranteed the right to hunt, fish and forage “as formerly.” If access to herring and chinook are denied because the resource has been commercially over-exploited by non-First Nations, we abrogate solemn treaty promises. How does that square with the official rhetoric of reconciliation?
AUTHORITIES SAY SALISH SEA HERRING POPULATIONS have returned to historic levels of abundance. Not everyone agrees. Herring activist David Ellis is a former commercial fisherman, biologist, and one-time member of the federal government’s gold-standard Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).
Ellis says the estimated biomass for today’s so-called “historic” level of abundance is about the equivalent of one season’s catch 50 years ago.
He thinks the roe herring fishery should be stopped. “Yes. And banned forever. You have to look to Japan to see how destructive it is over time. And for First Nations it means cultural genocide as they lose herring eggs which are as key to their culture as salmon are.”
“Massive overharvests in the reduction fishery era are documented. This was a massacre that we are still paying for. The roe herring fishery has knocked out [local] population after population and interviews with First Nations elders best illustrate this.”
Ellis points to an enduring conflict within the management system—our emphasis on science at the expense of traditional knowledge.
On the one hand, he argues, we have 10,000 years of intimate use-based First Nations knowledge regarding the herring resource. On the other, 100 years of “official” knowledge from government experts who presided over the extirpation of baleen whales from the Salish Sea, serial collapses of herring fisheries, endangered species status for eulachon and now for a dozen chinook populations. Fisheries regulators, remember, once identified orcas as threats to industry to be eradicated with .50-calibre machine guns, put a bounty on seals until they were almost exterminated, and oversaw the indiscriminate slaughter of the harmless, plankton-feeding basking shark, now listed by COSEWIC as an endangered species.
The epicentre of surviving Salish Sea herring spawn is now off the East Coast of Vancouver Island. Since early February, seals, sea lions, porpoises and seabirds have been congregating for the feast. The predator species put on a raucous wildlife show. It brings tourists, sparks local festivals and, of course, attracts the ruthlessly efficient commercial harvesters.
Grant Scott, a former commercial fisherman, is now an advocate for herring as president of Conservancy Hornby Island, a local organization which is leading a campaign to close the herring fishery outright. Scott urges thinking about herring as components in an ecological web that’s so important we shouldn’t fish herring stocks at all. (See their online petition.)
Increasingly, environmentalists, First Nations, conservationists like Scott, sports anglers, and tourist-dependant communities that rely on other species for which herring is forage—chinook salmon, southern resident orcas, at least 40 species of sea birds, and, of course, the humans who make a living from whale watching and recreational sports fishing—want the Salish Sea herring fishery closed. Many argue herring’s value as forage far outweighs its value as industrial feedstock.
BC’s tourism sector, much of it associated with outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing, generated $17 billion in 2016 revenue. Tidal sports angling, most of it directed at fishing for chinook which are dependent on herring, generated $3.2 billion. Whale watching of orcas, which rely on chinook, and humpbacks which eat herring, generates about $200 million a year in BC. The roe herring fishery was worth $33 million in 2016. On the jobs front too, the numbers are worth comparing. While commercial fishing employs about 1,100 people, saltwater sports fishing employs 5,000 and tourism on Vancouver Island employs more than 20,000. In fact, tourism in BC contributed five times more to provincial GDP than the entire agriculture and fisheries sectors combined.
SINCE HERRING IS A KEY COMPONENT in the Salish Sea food chain, and since so many species which rely on herring are now either in steep decline or have begun disrupting other parts of the ecological web by switching predation patterns, the case for ending the herring fishery seems reasonable.
Chinook, which prey on herring stocks, are now in such serious trouble that extinction for many Salish Sea populations seems possible. In its latest report, the federal science committee evaluating species at risk lists nine chinook populations as endangered, four as threatened, and one as being of special concern. About half of BC’s 28 chinook populations are now threatened with extirpation.
This is not a management crisis, it’s a looming catastrophe. It raises profound ethical dilemmas for politicians setting management policy.
Southern resident orcas, which feed predominantly upon the now- vanishing chinook salmon, are also listed as an endangered population. It has dwindled to 74, a 35-year low, and biologists say two more are expected to starve to death by summer.
Southern resident orca (Photo by MarkMallesonPhotography.com)
It gets worse. A 2012 study of seabirds in the Salish Sea found that almost 40 percent—22 species—showed “significantly declining trends.” One group of seabirds, the forage fish feeders for whom herring are the most important food source, deserve special concern because of the steepness of the population declines, the researchers warned.
The seabirds that deserve most attention (some have lost almost 20 percent of their populations)—the western grebe, the common loon, the horned grebe and the rhinoceros auklet—“feed largely on small, mid-water schooling bait (or forage) fish when in the Salish Sea. Pacific herring and Pacific sand lance (needlefish) are the two most important forage fish prey, particularly now that some species such as eulachon have collapsed.” The report says herring eggs and larvae are the two most important prey types for marine birds in the Salish Sea.
So, is a declining abundance of herring a key in this large-scale unravelling of Salish Sea food chains?
Ellis thinks so.
“I believe that the loss of the local, non-migratory herring leaves the vast Salish Sea pasturage unused by large herring in the summer, and this has contributed very significantly to the decline of the orca and chinook,” he says.
“Orcas need big chinook and chinook need big herring—and lots of both migratory and resident herring so they can use all areas [of the Salish Sea] as herring pastures.”
One recent major study of the Salish Sea food web concludes that not enough chinook now remain to sustain orcas, seals, sea lions, sport fishing, and commercial harvests. Predictably, there’s now a clamour to cull seals and sea lions, although one study of 1,000 samples of seal scat in the San Juan Islands found that 60 percent of seals’ diet was herring. The question arises, why are seals increasing predation on dwindling chinook stocks if herring stocks, which historically provided more than half their diet, are at historic levels of abundance?
SOME OF US ARE OLD ENOUGH to remember the kind of abundance that astonished Captain Vancouver 226 years ago and mesmerized that tugboat crew 125 years ago. That was before our Garden of Eden was laid to waste by greed and ignorance, scientific hubris, over-capitalization, corporate concentration, exoticized public tastes, and colonialist racism that marginalized Indigenous knowledge and Aboriginal fishing rights.
Old-timers would advise anglers to watch for squabbling masses of gulls hovering and plunge diving. That would signal a herring ball, forced up by large chinook and coho feeding from below. Troll your cut herring strip, Lucky Louie plug, wobbly Tom Mack spoon or bucktail fly past that, the lure emulating a stunned or wounded bait fish, and you’d be pretty sure to get a strike.
Herring in the Salish Sea were once so abundant that you didn’t have to buy bait. You took out a herring rake, a long paddle-like implement with teeth set into it like a comb, and simply swept live bait up and into the bottom of your boat.
My father-in-law, who caught his first chinook from a dugout canoe in Cowichan Bay shortly after the First World War, used a herring rake. His is now an artifact in a museum, just as those recollections of the immense herring schools sweeping in and out of the Salish Sea to spawn each spring have been consigned to mostly-forgotten archives.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.
More insights about the Salish Sea herring fishery in this video by Colby Rex O'Neill