Fighting for the future of Canada's West Coast

Pacific herring plays a pivotal role in the health of Canada’s west coast. Four of British Columbia’s five herring stocks have collapsed due to overfishing. Campaigners are now battling government and industry to save the coastline’s last viable stock.

Words & photographs by Tavish Campbell

Floating through a cloud of fish sperm in the Salish Sea, I watch as one of British Columbia’s most spectacular natural events unfolds in the shallow water below me. 

Moments ago the water was crystal clear, allowing me to note the season’s first kelp growth reaching towards the surface, but now it is a frenzy of fish, eggs and sperm. It is a convergence of life seen only a few times a season on the BC coast and I am glad to be in the thick of it.

Every spring when the weather becomes fickle with hail and sun squalls, this migratory population of Pacific herring moves into the shallows of the Salish Sea, between Comox and Nanaimo, from waters off the west coast of Vancouver Island. In the single largest spawning event in BC, they gather in vast schools adjacent to spawning beaches and when the moment is right they move inshore in an overwhelming frenzy of activity. The females lay thousands of tiny sesame-seed-sized eggs, sticking them to the kelp and rocks. Simultaneously, the males release their milt, or sperm, into the water, fertilising the eggs and turning the ocean a milky indigo blue.

The event has a charged energy to it, drawing in predators as diverse as whales, bears, sealions and wolves to feed on the fish and their roe. It feels like the first good feast of the season after a hungry winter and a turning point to richer months ahead. Herring are the foundation of the BC coast, providing an essential  food source for countless species including the endangered chinook salmon who’s diet is 60% herring.

The herring’s strategy to overwhelm its predators by sheer numbers and dizzying movement is equally effective on me as an underwater photographer. There are usually only a few minutes to see the herring up close in the shallows before they start to spawn and the water turns white with milt, reducing the visibility to zero. In those few short moments, when I should be focused on my camera, I often find myself rendered totally useless by, and in awe of, the spectacle.

But there is one predator who is immune to the herring’s tactics: British Columbia’s industrial fishing fleet. Attracted by this concentration of protein the commercial fleet has brought with it the crash and dim of an industrial scale operation bent on removing as much fish, as fast as possible. Four of BC’s five main herring populations have already collapsed from overfishing, leading the fleet to intensify its focus on this last viable stock.

I have joined efforts with Pacific Wild, a conservation organisation which works to protect wildlife and their habitat in the Great Bear Rainforest. After concentrating primarily on herring campaigns along the northern coast of British Columbia, this season Pacific Wild has turned its attention south and teamed up with local groups Conservancy Hornby Island and Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards.

Collectively, we are calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to recognise the fragility of this last main herring population and suspend the industrial fishery. It is a daunting task but a critically needed campaign, given the vital role herring play in feeding the coastal ecosystem. 

This year, DFO is permitting an astounding 21,000 tons, or 130 million fish, to be removed from the Salish Sea. This equates to 20% of the total biomass gathered to spawn – and is based on dubious population estimates and management models that have over-predicted the number of herring in the Salish Sea six times in the last 13 years, causing overfishing. Even so, the Federal Fisheries Minister recently reassured British Columbians, saying: “We make our decisions based on science”.

Most alarmingly, DFO openly admits to its failure to take into consideration the broader ecosystem requirements when determining the catch rate. It is not fully understood how much herring the humpback whales, seals, sea lions, seabirds, salmon and countless other species require, yet in total disregard for the precautionary principle we continue to greet the spawning herring with a ravenous industrial appetite.

This type of welcome isn’t unfamiliar to Pacific herring. European settlers’ exploitive history with these valuable fish has been, on an evolutionary timescale, short and severe. Starting in the late 1800s, herring was caught commercially for food and fish oil. This evolved into a highly efficient “reduction” fishery, which rendered the herring into fish meal for fertiliser and livestock feed, not human consumption. This industry grew to a frenzy and peaked in the 1960s, shortly before collapsing spectacularly, forcing DFO to place a coast-wide moratorium on commercial herring fisheries in the hope of a recovery.

After four short years, DFO re-opened the commercial fishery, this time targeting the roe which was valued on the Japanese market. The roe-fishery, which continues today, uses only the eggs for human consumption, and accounts for approximately 10% of the total catch by weight. This fishery also peaked and diminished, under the same management models being used on the last stock in the Salish Sea.

The relationship between herring and humans on the BC coast hasn’t always been this deadly. Herring is a foundation of First Nations cultures, who have fished them for thousands of years. Traditional ecological knowledge indicates this clearly and archaeological records stretching back more than 10,000 years show that in 171 sites from Puget Sound to southwestern Alaska, herring bones accounted for nearly half of all fish bones and were present at 99% of the sites.

In some places in the Salish Sea, herring was likely a more important food source than salmon. 

Herring roe continues to be an important food source and economy to coastal First Nations today. To harvest the roe, tree boughs or kelp is hung vertically in the water in known spawning sites before the fish arrive. After the spawn occurs and the fish have deposited their eggs, the branches or kelp is removed from the water, allowing the herring to return to sea and spawn again next year, a cycle that can repeat itself up to nine times in the life of a herring. 

Tragically, our industrial fishing models and corporate catch quotas have no patience for such an elegant and sensible method of harvest. One of the most disturbing aspects of the roe fishery today, is that only the roe is consumed by humans and the actual fish (approximately 90% of the catch by weight) is reduced into fishmeal. This is sold as pet and livestock food and is also a key ingredient in farmed salmon feed. Open-net-pen salmon aquaculture is a highly controversial industry in British Columbia, having serious negative impacts on the health of BC’s wild salmon from the spread of disease and pathogens. The irony of removing the chinook salmons main food source to feed farmed Atlantic salmon, which in turn are infecting the wild chinook salmon seems lost on Canada’s Minister of Fisheries.

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This feature appears in ISSUE 6: Reconnection of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Six
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