Pacific herring are a small silver forage fish near the base of the food chain that eat plankton, and in turn are eaten by everything from Chinook and Coho salmon to larger fish, birds, whales, and bears. An essential link in the marine food web, they are a critically important marine species on the west coast. Each year in early spring the herring migrate from offshore waters to spawn in bays and estuaries. Reaching maturity at age three, they live to spawn up to ten times in their lives.
Herring Management – Populations in Decline
Herring are a culturally important fish for many First Nations along the west coast. For example, herring have been called a “foundation food” for the Tsawout First Nation, sustaining people and culture for thousands of years. Traditional knowledge from WSÁNEĆ, Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nations, among others, and archaeological data support that herring were abundant along this coast for millennia. However, since the mid 1900s herring populations have declined precipitously. The reasons for these losses include warming waters, food availability, competition, habitat degradation, predators, and last but not least, industrialized commercial fisheries.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) divides the west coast into five areas called ‘fisheries’ for herring management. Herring were first commercially harvested to make fertilizer and fish oil in the early 20th century, and these industrial-scale harvests led to a crash in their population on the BC coast in the 1960s. Following the population crash, all five fisheries were closed in 1967. They reopened about five years later with the beginning of the commercial roe fishery. Through the 80s and 90s there were a series of temporary closures as stocks struggled to recover. Since reopening, the herring population in many places has continued to fall, and they spawn in fewer locations because of habitat loss. Some stocks such the Haida Gwaii fishery have failed to recover despite closure since 2002.
The Current Situation
In 2022, most commercial herring fisheries on Canada’s west coast are closed. Closures in Heiltsuk and Nuu-chah-nulth territories were fought for by those respective First Nations, out of concern for low population numbers. The Strait of Georgia is the only area that currently supports a commercial herring fishery, with the harvest rate for this year set at 10% and a maximum allowable catch of 7,850 tonnes. This is half of the harvest rate allowed in 2021, but still falls short of the commercial fisheries moratorium called for by the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council and other local First Nations and environmental groups in 2019. The continual drop in herring numbers suggests DFO’s approach to herring management is failing to meet the precautionary principle.
Another factor in the larger picture is that the price of herring has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years, with 90% of the catch being ground up to produce low value products like fish meal and fish oil. Canada exports the rest to Japan, which has the predominant market for herring roe, and smaller amounts are sold in China and the U.S.A. These numbers suggest that Pacific herring contribute more to British Columbia’s economy by feeding other species than as a fish product.
Commercial Fishing Moratoriums Required
Given continuing loss of spawning habitat, uncertainties posed by climate change, and the detrimental impacts of continual harvesting, what is the answer? For years, Coast Salish First Nations and environmental groups have called for DFO to declare an immediate moratorium on the commercial herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia. This action is required to encourage the recovery of herring stocks. The commercial fishery should only reopen once scientists and policy makers better understand herring population dynamics and stocks have recovered significantly.
The Conservancy Hornby Island (CHI) has been leading a charge to help herring stocks recover in the Strait of Georgia. Their herring recovery plan is detailed in the image below. More information on CHI’s efforts for herring can be found on their website. They have also started a petition calling for an immediate moratorium on the Pacific herring roe fishery.
Please write to the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Joyce Murray and to your Member of Parliament to advocate for British Columbia’s Pacific herring.
To learn more about herring and efforts to ensure their future:
Conservancy Hornby Island’s Herring Campaign
Gauvreau, A., Lepofsky, D., Rutherford, M., and Reid, M. 2017. “Everything revolves around the herring”: the Heiltsuk–herring relationship through time. Ecology and Society 22(2):10.
McKechnie, I., Lepofsky, D., Moss, M. L., Butler, V. L., Orchard, T. J., Coupland, G., Foster, F., Caldwell, M., and Lertzman, K. 2014. Archaeological perspectives on herring variability. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (9).
W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council – Herring Fishery Moratorium