Gilnetters and seiners hauled in thousands of tons of herring from the Strait of Georgia this week, but there are fewer fish in the water than last year, even though the quota for the roe herring fishery is higher.
That has herring conservationists concerned about the future of stocks, especially as some populations, such as in the Gorge, have all but disappeared while others, such as on the west coast of Vancouver Island, remain too depleted to allow a fishery.
“Herring are more valuable in the water feeding the salmon than they are being killed so their eggs can go to sushi bars in Japan,” said David Ellis, a private Vancouver fisheries planner.
“They have taken a very large tonnage of herring. It leaves little for the killer whales, marbled murrelets, chinook and coho salmon that are heavily affected by the loss of so much herring at the most critical time in their breeding cycle.”
Roger Kanno, herring resource manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the estimated herring biomass this year in the Strait of Georgia — an assessment area that runs from Campbell River, to Howe Sound and down to Victoria — is 82,952 tons.
That is down from 152,613 tons last year.
“That population is doing quite well, it is considered to be productive, but it is actually down a bit this year,” he said.
Kanno said it is not known why numbers drop.
“It’s a very short-lived species and there are a lot of them, so stocks fluctuate,” he said.
The quota for the roe herring fishery — fish caught for their eggs — for the Strait of Georgia is 13,005 tons this year, up from 11,500 tons last year, Kanno said.
However, that is not the whole picture as there are other herring fisheries — such as the winter food and bait fisheries — in the area, he said.
“A maximum of 20 per cent of the forecast biomass is allocated to all the fisheries,” he said.
Last year, fishers took only 12 per cent of the allocated quota because of poor market conditions.
Kanno has heard anecdotally that more large females are being caught this year.
Ellis said that is not good news.
“Roe fishing doesn’t work because they are taking all the large female fish. If you take 90 per cent of all the females going back to one bay, it removes that population,” he said.
However, Kanno said it is sustainable to take 20 per cent.
“It is based on science. The Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat approves it every year,” he said.
DFO surveys five areas of B.C. for herring fisheries and, this year, only the Strait of Georgia and Prince Rupert are open.
“The three other areas, the Central Coast, West Coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii are below the commercial fishing threshold, so we’re not fishing in those areas,” Kanno said.
There has been no fishery on the west coast of Vancouver Island since 2006. Haida Gwaii has been closed since 2003 and the Central Coast since 2008.
Ellis wonders whether those populations will ever return.
“The Vancouver Island stocks are so over-fished from the past, they can’t go back there,” he said. “They say nature has not provided good ocean survival, but I think that’s a cover-up.”
Instead of killing fish for roe, British Columbians should be looking to First Nations, Ellis said.
First Nations, many of whom have lost their roe harvest and blame commercial overfishing, traditionally harvested the roe after it had been laid on kelp, leaving the adult fish alive to spawn another year.
Meanwhile, Andrew Paine, founder of the Salish Sea Herring Enhancement Society, said few herring have appeared in the Gorge this year, despite efforts to enhance habitat.
“It’s really hard to say what is happening with this population and why they are not coming back,” he said.
Historic commercial overfishing and creosote pilings — the chemicals can kill the eggs — are the most obvious reasons, Paine said.
“I’m not a scientist, but 20 per cent of the whole population seems like an unsustainable amount when you are taking the largest, spawning fish,” he said.