Pacific Herring: Canada Poised to reopen fishery of a cornerstone species at risk

Herring Swimming in the Pacific Ocean
Little fish can make a big difference. Herring are an important species on the West coast.  Photo: PACIFIC WILD

words :: Hugh Forward 

Pacific herring are a small and ordinary fish, but they are the backbone of the West Coast marine environment. “Herring are the foundation for the whole ecosystem,” says Vanessa Minke-Martin, a marine science specialist with Pacific Wild. She adds that more “cared about” species like wild salmon, Killer Whales, Humpback Whales, sea lions and sea birds all rely directly on herring and the annual spawn.  

British Columbia is vital to Pacific herring survival. Herring return here annually in spring to spawn. But with the Department Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) on the verge of approving the harvest of 20 per cent of the Strait of Georgia’s herring population in March, Conservancy Hornby Island and Pacific Wild are launching a campaign to raise awareness and suspend the fishery.  

Harvesting over 200 million fish in 2017, the fishery operating in the Strait of Georgia is the last of its kind. Commercial fishery operations like this one have resulted in four other major spawning sites on the BC coast diminished to dissolution in the past 10 years. Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii, west Vancouver Island and the central coast have all had their commercial herring fisheries suspended. Minke-Martin says this is because “for each herring population there is a minimum number of fish that need to be present for the DFO to have a fishery. All of the other populations have fallen below that number.” 

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In the not-so-distant past, these herring spawning events occurred just about everywhere on our coastline. Deirdre Leowinata, who also heads the Pacific Wild campaign, says if we do not let the herring population recover we could be looking at “an ecosystem collapse from the bottom up.”  

Not only is the Pacific herring vital to BC’s ocean ecosystem, it also plays an important cultural role for First Nations. They strategically place strands of kelp off the beaches of BC every March. Millions of herring swim past and excrete their milky offspring, which coagulate and congregate close to shore. Oceanic movements shift the giant pools of spawn. Layers of eggs stick to the kelp as the pool drifts by. The kelp is pulled out of the water and the eggs harvested. The eggs, or roe, are prepared and eaten. This practice is known as spawn-on-kelp and has been happening for thousands of years. In an era of supposed reconciliation, many feel that putting another herring population at risk is yet another sign of government ignoring its own promises.  

Leowinata warns, “The DFO has a history of allowing these fisheries to continue until they collapse,” drawing a comparison between current events and the mismanagement of fisheries in Canada’s East that led to the total collapse of Atlantic cod populations only a few decades ago. Will BC’s herring suffer the same fate? Time will tell, but both Pacific Wild and Conservancy Hornby Island have online campaigns and petitions aimed at breaking the time loop of mismanagement and protecting the future of this small but important species.