Commentary: Is Pacific herring the next Atlantic cod?
A comment from a board member of Conservancy Hornby Island, the epicenter of the last remaining or endangered herring fishery in British Columbia
Pacific herring may be small in size, but they are one of the most important fish in BC marine waters.
Herring have been described as “the foundation of the marine ecosystem” as they are central to the diets of many of our fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Herring is essential to the diet of Chinook salmon, which is the primary food source for the endangered Southern Resident orca population.
Historically, annual herring spawns have occurred along the coast and throughout the Salish Sea. Herring was one of the most important food sources for coastal First Nations. Unfortunately, most major herring runs have fallen victim over the years to DFO’s mismanagement and the greed of the fishing industry.
Today, only one major spawning area remains, between Parksville and Comox and around Hornby and Denman Islands, but there are now very clear signs that this population is also declining.
For several years, conservation organizations, First Nations and members of the scientific community have been sounding the alarm that this last great herring run was in trouble. These groups believe that given the critical importance of herring to the ecosystem and with the uncertainties of climate change, the commercial herring fishery should be reduced or suspended altogether.
The industry harvests herring while it is spawning because the goal is to catch the fish just before the females release their eggs. There are no other fisheries in Canada (and most parts of the world) that allow the killing of fish on their spawning grounds.
Unlike salmon, herring do not die after spawning but return year after year to spawn again. By allowing industry to kill mature herring on their spawning grounds, we are not only preventing them from spawning to create the next generation, but we are also preventing entire year-classes of mature fish from potentially spawning in subsequent years.
You don’t need to be a scientist to understand that such fishing is not sustainable.
The main objective of the fishery is to extract the hanks of ripe eggs to sell them mainly in Japan as a delicacy. The remains of females and all males, which represent approximately 90% of the harvested biomass, are not used for human consumption, but for the feeding of pets and farmed salmon.
Not only that, but the value of the herring crop has dropped over the past 25 years, from several thousand dollars per ton to just $500 or less in recent years. Why would we put our marine ecosystem at risk by continuing this wasteful and ecologically destructive management regime? Good question!
There was actually some good news this year when new Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray announced she was cutting the herring quota by 50% in the Strait of Georgia despite strong objections from the fishing industry. .
The positive move raised hopes for a strong spawn this spring, but when the herring arrived in early March it became clear that the spawn was one of the smallest and lightest in history. recent.
Despite all the efforts, the commercial purse seine and gillnet fleets only managed to catch 4,300 tonnes of their quota of 7,850 tonnes: a quota that the Minister had already reduced by 50%! The fish just weren’t there.
Changes to the commercial herring fishery are long overdue. Given the low return of herring this year, we may now be facing the tipping point of the last major spawning population on the coast. Four other important spawning grounds in British Columbia were fished out of oblivion years ago and none of them have recovered.
We’ve all read about how the Atlantic cod population was destroyed by mismanagement and overfishing and the population hasn’t recovered for almost three decades.
If we allow our herring population to follow the path of Atlantic cod, the implications for this coast cannot be underestimated. Herring is the staple species, so if it collapses it will have serious implications for the health and survival of almost all marine species in our waters.
In addition to a moratorium on commercial herring fishing, we also need a herring recovery program to protect and restore herring stocks and to help fishers and shore workers phase out industry.
The future of the entire marine ecosystem depends on the health of herring stocks, so let’s make sure herring doesn’t become the next Atlantic cod.