How did one of the most important herring stocks on the BC coast suddenly collapse, contributing to a cascade of economic, cultural and ecological decline?
As with most things related to fisheries mismanagement in Canada, it starts with DFO.
The long-standing DFO policy to allow a Sac-Roe Fishery (SRF) to harvest herring eggs for Asian export has always been an incredibly wasteful and shortsighted industry. Using seine or purse nets to capture schools of pre-spawn herring SRF boats can kill thousands of tonnes of fish in a matter of minutes. Of those huge catches, only the roe is removed for human consumption; the carcasses are treated as by-product and used to make feed tablets for fish farms, bait or put into garden fertilizers. As herring can spawn seven or eight times over their lifetime, this kill-fishery not only removes huge biomass from the overall herring population, but also destroys their ability to reproduce in future years. Also, by targeting the larger herring, the ‘elders’ are removed and therefore the years of teaching that normally would follow through the ranks of the herring schools is eliminated. Unlike salmon, who have evolved strategies to survive without ever having met their parents, herring are not born orphans. They rely on their parents and elders to teach them the ways of the north Pacific.
One of B.C.’s most important foundation or keystone species continues to be systematically extirpated in the annual SRF harvest for fish food and bait. Granted, there are many other wasteful industries in our country, but what makes this one so spectacularly so is the fact that there is a clear, effective, and sustainable alternative. It is not a new method of harvesting herring eggs, quite the opposite, it has been used along the Great Bear coast for thousands of years. Herring bones that have been uncovered deep in the substrate of ancient village sites provides evidence of the long relationship between the first peoples of this coast and herring.
This year I was fortunate enough to witness the Heiltsuk people carrying out this age old practice, and I have concluded that fishing for herring eggs is one of the most elegant and sophisticated fisheries that still exists on this planet. The Heiltsuk people today, like the countless generations before them, travel to the traditional herring spawning grounds in anticipation of the inshore herring migration. Heiltsuk families anchor logs and other floatation devices to the seabed and attach lines of hemlock branches or seaweed to them – essentially mimicking ideal herring spawn habitat. With luck, herring will see these branches and kelp fronds and choose them as a spawning location, after a few days multiple layers of eggs will coat the vegetation and the harvest can begin.
The Heiltsuk choose hemlock branches because of the needles’ spicy flavour and medicinal benefits, but also because the natural resins provide a lot of sticky surface area for the eggs to attach themselves. Certain species of kelp are preferred over hemlock by some families, and spawn on kelp remains the main product used for export.
These days, as the world’s oceans are picked clean for human consumption, the words ‘sustainable fishery’ have lost their meaning. In contrast, this traditional fishery has a very small footprint. It also maximizes ecological and economic benefits as the herring get to live and continue to spawn for successive generations.
Compare this to the DFO industrial scale kill fishery model and it becomes shameful that the Heiltsuk and other Nations have not been more supported for the long battle that they have been waging against DFO, both in the courts and by active blockades on the herring grounds – to shut this unsustainable fishery down. Like the east-coast cod and so many other fisheries that have collapsed at the hands of DFO, herring stocks here are following the same path and hundreds of traditional spawning areas in the territory have gone silent. A few years ago DFO finally shut the seine fishery down for lack of biomass – the local herring populations were overfished and getting wiped out.
Today a few small areas on the central coast continue to produce small spawns, this year was actually the largest return since the commercial fishery was shut down. Is it because of the lack of industrial fishing pressure, or was it better ocean survival conditions? Impossible to know, but what is agreed upon is that the stocks are still just a fragment of their former days.
When the Heiltsuk fishers go out on the grounds they are bringing with them generations of experience and knowledge. Unlike the DFO commercial fishery with its massive clanking of machinery and diesel belching seine boats with helicopters and airplanes overhead searching for herring schools, local fishermen keep their voices down on the herring grounds and boats idle slowly out of respect and patience for the herring. People here recognize herring as intelligent fish that spook quickly if an unnatural sound is detected.
The logic behind the SRF industry is completely lost on me. One does not have to use much foresight to see that a fishery founded on the mass and unnecessary killing of future spawning populations is doomed to harvest itself into the ground. All of the hallmarks of hunter-overkill are evident with the herring fishery. More corporate control of the fishery, more technology being used with bigger boats and hi-tech sonars while the fish get smaller in size forcing more immature fish to be harvested. This not only destroys the fish with greatest lifetime spawning potential, it is not even profitable as immature fish (2-3 years old) have fragile stomach linings that burst before any roe can be harvested.
The DFO releases an annual ‘Pacific Herring Integrated Fisheries Management Plan’, which, on the surface, appears to be a comprehensive report. Reading ten years worth of these documents, however, only further convinced me that the DFO not only has a limited understanding of herring’s ecological importance, requirements, or how to safely manage them, they also don’t seem to care. Take this section of the 2004 report, for example: “At this time there is no information available on the appropriate conservation limits for the ecosystem as it pertains to the herring stocks”. It continues on to talk about harvest rates, and ends with: “Research is ongoing to better understand these ecosystem processes and the role herring plays in maintaining the integrity and functioning of the ecosystem.” This paragraph appeared sincere enough when I first read it, a commitment to future herring research is definitely important. I then read the exact, word for word, statement in the 2013 report. Nine years later they have failed to do any of the conservation research they claimed to be working on, and they don’t even care enough to write a new excuse.
Today about 85% of the herring caught is by SRF and about 6-8% SOK (spawn on kelp).
In 1996 conflicts between First Nations’ fishing practices and DFO’s regulations reached the Supreme Court of Canada when two Heiltsuk brothers, William and Donald Gladstone, were arrested for selling SOK. In what has become known as the Gladstone Commission, the Heiltsuk Nation argued their case and became the first Nation in Canada to be granted a court-affirmed, un-extinguished aboriginal right to commercially harvest and sell SOK. Unfortunately, this victory was not the end of the Heiltsuk Nation’s struggle with DFO. The SRF continued to kill thousands of tonnes of herring biomass every year resulting in extirpation of stocks throughout the territory.
The historical and ongoing treatment of herring by DFO is a tragedy. The constant theme underlying years of collapses and management failures is a complete disregard for the essential role these forage fish play in B.C.’s ecosystem and First Nations culture. This miraculous, mysterious species – which provides a foundation for so many – needs more support.