A seiner with herring in its net. Photo by Ian McAllister

Vancouver Island conservancy group calls for government to shut down Georgia Strait herring roe fishery

DFO says extensive research is done annually before setting a maximum harvest rate

A Hornby Island organization is calling for the federal government to shut down a Pacific herring roe fishery scheduled to operate in the Strait of Georgia in March.

According to Conservancy Hornby Island, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is preparing to approve the catch of 20 per cent of herring that spawn in the Strait of Georgia. This is approximately 28,000 tons of spawning herring or approximately 200 million fish.

The conservancy says this percentage is too high, especially considering the herring’s vital importance to many sea creatures who rely on it for survival.

“Pacific herring is the basis for the food web that supports the salmon and killer whales and most of the other mammals, sea birds and creatures who, with us, call this place home,” said Grant Scott, Conservancy Hornby Island president and ex-commercial fisherman.

According to Scott, approximately 80 per cent of Chinook salmon’s diets consist of Pacific herring. Up the food chain, over 80 per cent of the southern resident killer whale’s diet is Chinook salmon.

“It doesn’t take a scientist to make the important link between herring and killer whales,” said Scott, adding that only 10 per cent of the fished herring in roe fisheries are eaten by humans; the rest of the herring is ground up for fish farm food and pet food.

And while the herring is an important source of food for many ocean creatures, the demand from humans has decreased dramatically.

Herring roe was once considered a delicacy especially in Japanese cuisine, and it could bring in up to $5,000 a ton, says Scott. Now, a ton of herring roe is only sold for between $150 to $700.

“Times change and yet DFO keeps allowing this outdated fishery to carry on,” said Scott.

Other Herring fisheries shut down

With other herring fisheries getting shut down around the Island, Scott questions if the DFO fishing allowance has caused overfishing of the species in the past.

According to Scott, four of the six major spawning areas on the B.C. coast have been shut down in the past 20 years.

“This year the fisheries south of Nanaimo have been shut down because of low herring returns there in recent years, undoubtedly because of overfishing,” he said. “How can we believe that DFO is managing this valuable public resource in the best interests of all of us and our marine ecosystem?”

Scott says the last remaining major Pacific Herring spawn from Washington State to Alaska is in the northern Strait of Georgia between Nanaimo and Comox.

“Wouldn’t it make sense to leave this stock alone to hopefully rebuild all the herring schools on our coast and the marine life that need them for survival?”

Conservancy Hornby Island recently started a petition to close the Pacific herring roe fishery in the Strait of Georgia. It can be reached here https://bit.ly/2CQmheb

DFO says research determines fishing allowance

Neil Davis, director of resource management with the DFO says determining a fishing allowance that will ensure the sustainability of a species is not something that is taken lightly. Each year prior to spawning season in late February or March, DFO does large amounts of research before setting a fishing allowance.

“The basic outline of how we go from what we know about the stock to decisions about how much we can catch starts with science surveys every year,” says Davis. “That includes setting things like a maximum harvest rate – given how many fish we think are there, what proportion of them are the maximum that can be harvested. It also includes closing some areas where there’s been trends of lower levels of returning herring to spawn each year.”

The science surveys include gathering data about the abundance of fish, their weight, size and spawning rates.

While herring fisheries on the west coast of Vancouver Island are proposed to be closed this year due to less healthy stock, Davis says the stock in the Strait of Georgia is actually near historic highs.

“Because the stock has actually been fairly healthy for the past number of years, the stock has actually been consistent in recent years,” he said. “But if even despite our best efforts next year looks very different, … we should have updated information which would allow us to really adjust course and respond to any changes in the stock.”

The health and numbers of the stock can be affected by changes in ocean conditions, says Davis.

Since herring are a forage species, Davis says DFO gives particular consideration to the Chinook salmon and other creatures that feed on them.

“That is in part why we set this precautionary approach to the way that the stock is managed,” he said. “That not only ensures the sustainability of the stock to return to the fishery next year, but also ensures that the large majority of the biomass is actually not being fished and is available to all the other species that may be feeding on herring.”

While Scott raised the point that the demand for roe has decreased dramatically, Davis says market prices are not DFO’s concern.

“We can’t really control demand or market prices, nor are we trying to,” he said. “Our job as the managing agency is to say how healthy is the stock, how much of it could be fished while ensuring its sustainability. The fishing industry, they may elect to fish up to that amount or they may elect to fish less if there isn’t a market to sell their fish into.”

Davis says the DFO is planning to approve the Pacific herring roe fishery with a maximum harvest rate of 20 per cent in the Strait of Georgia. He adds the fishing allowance has been consistent in this area for a number of years and will likely be approved once more based on the health and numbers of the Pacific herring in the Strait of Georgia.

He adds that hearing from groups such as the Conservancy Hornby Island is helpful to aid the DFO in improving their management of such an important resource.

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