Archive for category Herring
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.
Sun, snow, rain, hail, repeat. All within an hour.
This is the “herring weather” that greeted the rest of our field crew when they arrived last week and began readying boats and testing equipment for our work to document the herring spawn.
This incredible natural history event has sustained wildlife and First Nations communities alike for millennia. As humpback whales complete their migration and black bears begin stirring after a long winter, herring and their eggs are a welcome source of nourishment.
After years of an unsustainable commercial fishery, the herring stocks collapsed and have yet to fully recover on the central coast. Each year, people in Bella Bella wonder if they will be able to harvest enough of the herring spawn on kelp (SOK) to feed their families.
The Hakai Network has developed the Herring School to study the ecological and socio-cultural impacts of herring and their decline. Similarly, Pacific Wild is working to highlight the importance of this foundation species.
This spring we are working with an international film crew to create a documentary on the herring spawn. We are also bringing the spawn into the Bella Bella Community School through our remote wildlife cameras, and we are taking students out into the field with us. Our new HD pan-tilt-zoom camera will bring live footage of the spawn happening miles away into the classrooms at a stunning quality that we have not been able to achieve until now.
These past few days, the weather has calmed and the spawn has started. The VHF is crackling with chatter on hot spots, Heiltsuk fishermen have begun setting lines in the water for SOK, and we have our first camera in place.
Stay tuned as we post updates during this exciting time of year!
Photo by Ian McAllister
A post by Max Bakken
In late March and early April, millions of herring travel inshore from the Pacific to spawn. Herring roe is highly sought after by coastal First Nations. It is an important part of their cuisine and culture, and brings a frenzy of activity and food after the winter months. There are many ways to collect the roe – herring spawn on kelp, other seaweed, and hemlock trees that have been placed in the intertidal zone.
This season, I was lucky enough to get out on the water with some members of the Heiltsuk First Nation on a field trip to the herring grounds. Jordan, a hunter, fisherman, and food gatherer, came along to teach some grade 4 students about the herring spawn. Jordan is extremely knowledgeable about his territory and plays an essential role in the community providing food from the land and sea for his family and Elders. Our first stop was on a beach to have a look at some hemlock trees. Jordan darted into the forest and after some quick snaps came out with an armload of hemlock branches. The ones he had selected were flat in plane, not bushy. He explained that the herring like to spawn on a flat surface, which is why he had selected these branches, but also that it is easier to pick the roe off of the flatter branches. After you find the right branches, you have to strategically hang them in the water where the herring are likely to spawn. The students understood all of this and each took a sprig of hemlock.
We weren’t going to set any branches that day, so we moved on to a rocky area just offshore of another island. Just below the surface was a kelp forest, slowly waving in the current. You couldn’t see the kelp until you were right on top of it. Jordan winked, “secret spot”. He pulled a strand out of the water and showed us which pieces of kelp worked best to attract herring. The students all shrieked as it came out of the water as it looked like a long snake with long flat leathery wings. Jordan showed us that the medium length pieces, about a hand width wide, with no holes, and of course, nice and flat were best. Ideally, you hang this kelp from a rope with floats, and the herring come along and spawn on both sides. What you get almost looks like an inside out piece of sushi, about a half an inch of herring eggs on either side of a piece of seaweed. Chopped up into small squares it collects a high price in Japanese restaurants. Eating the kelp on its own is just fine too, and everyone tried a piece. It was salty, and tasted like seaweed! Yum.
Many Heiltsuk, I learned, prefer the taste of roe on hemlock. While you will find roe on kelp at some feasts, hemlock takes the cake. The roe takes on the flavour of whatever it is laid on. While you might not think of using hemlock needles in a soup or with a turkey, the flavour is a bit like rosemary and complements the roe nicely. Because of this, the commercial spawn fishery is exclusively spawn on kelp, and the Heiltsuk save the hemlock for themselves.
After a half an hour ride up another inlet, we found a fallen cedar whose branches were covered in spawn. Jordan said that the Heiltsuk may have used cedar in the past for roe harvesting, but that these days no one does it. Anthony, one of the grade 4′s, was looking at it like it was a new flavour of ice cream. Hands in the water he had a loaded branch in no time. Soon everyone on the boat was munching away, putting in their two cents about the cedar flavour. Almost everyone gave it a thumbs up, and Joe, the students’ teacher, had packed away what looked like a healthy month’s supply into his bag.
At the end of the day we had a bunch of happy kids who had more herring roe in their bellies and their minds than they did at the start. As they walked up the dock each with a sprig of cedar heavy with roe in their hands, I realized how important a food can be to a culture. The passing of traditional knowledge I had just taken part in has been happening for many millennia. The herring spawn is a huge event – it symbolizes the Heiltsuk new year. The enthusiasm of the students wasn’t just due to childish excitement, it was an enthusiasm shared with thousands of generations past about harvesting food, the coming of a new year, and the great bounty of the herring spawn.
A cedar bough laden with herring eggs. Photo by Max Bakken.
Herring are small, oily fish that migrate along the coast of British Columbia to spawn in early spring. They are an important food source for local First Nation communities. The fish spawn on seaweed, rocks, and anything else that is in protected areas of the waterways. To harvest herring eggs, local community members strategically sink kelp or hemlock branches for the fish to spawn on, then collect the branches covered in roe.
As the herring begin to spawn this year, we are poised to document this impressive annual ritual with underwater and above water cameras and hydrophones set on strategically placed hemlock branches. Jordan Wilson, with his immense local knowledge, assisted us in choosing a site, sinking the branches, and placing the equipment.
Soon after the spawn began, a late winter storm rolled through. The herring need calm protected waters for a successful spawn, and moved away or hid deep in the water while the wind blew and the waves built. Now we wait patiently for them to return and continue their amazing ritual.