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Moratorium sought on herring fisheries; critical for salmon

Conservationists and herring industry disagree about whether there's a problem

Conservationists are calling for a moratorium on both the ­upcoming food-and-bait herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia and next season’s roe herring fishery to protect stocks of the small silver fish.

They fear herring ­living ­year-round in the Strait of ­Georgia are at risk due to fishing. Resident herring are caught in the winter, as well as in March, when they are pulled up in nets along with migratory herring returning to the strait to spawn.

Herring serve as critical food for chinook salmon, a favoured food of the endangered southern resident killer whales.

The Strait of Georgia food-and-bait herring fishery is scheduled to open Nov. 20 and run to Feb. 12. It has an initial quota of 2,100 tons, which may be adjusted once the fishery opens. After the food-and-bait ­fishery closes, the roe herring fishery will follow, opening some time in March.

Controversy has accompanied herring fisheries in recent years, as populations of the fish — once abundant along B.C.’s coast — have plummeted. First Nations worried about the stocks have asked for ­closures in specific areas within the strait, while the industry is seeking additional fishing opportunities. Decisions about suggested closures will be made before the fishery opens on Nov. 20, a federal Fisheries and Oceans report said.

Conservancy Hornby Island said Strait of Georgia herring stocks are little understood. The organization is among groups urging Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray to impose a moratorium on the fish-and-bait and the roe herring fisheries to rebuild stocks coastwide. The plan includes buyback and retiring of commercial herring fishing licences.

Grant Scott of Conservancy Hornby Island said the annual fishing allocation is based on the migratory stocks, which mix with the residents. It’s the resident herring that chinook salmon rely on in the summer when the migratory fish have left.

More research is needed to understand the state of the resident population, said Scott, who is concerned that roe harvested from females for buyers offshore leaves the bulk of the remaining catch to be ground up for uses such as farmed fish feed and pet food — a low value for fish so important for the local eco-system.

Ian McAllister of the conservation group Pacific Wild said despite the closure of most herring fisheries in B.C. several years ago, recovery is “not happening for a large part of their traditional spawning areas.”

Herring fisheries have been poorly managed and there is a lack of understanding about winter populations, he said. “Yet they are taking thousands of tons of those fish out of the water.”

Federal funds are going towards chinook salmon and southern resident orca recovery efforts, “Yet they’re ignoring the most immediate basic step that they could take to have meaningful impact for those species, which is to further protect their food supply,” McAllister said.

David Ellis, a Vancouver-based herring researcher, suggests one way to help rebuild stocks is to take herring eggs from remaining spawning locations and transplant them in sites with low numbers.

Rob Morley, chairman of B.C.’s herring industry advisory board, has a different view of herring fisheries in the strait, saying scientific analysis and modelling show it’s a sustainable fishery with healthy stocks.

“It is our feeling that it is a very well-managed sustainable fishery.”

When it comes to migratory and resident stocks, Morley said extensive tagging and DNA studies found that they are all part of one population, with no genetic differences between the two.

He expects the total quota for this winter will be about 18,000 tons for the food-and-bait and the roe fishery combined, based on a 20 per cent harvest rate.

As controversy arises again, Morley said he recommends people “follow the science.”

Herring populations are actually building coastwide, he said.

The fishery opening this month is a “very small fishery,” Morley said. Not only is it sustainable, he said, but it comes at a time of year when there is little activity in the fishing sector, and brings in income for fishers and employment in processing plants.