Advocates call for moratorium on B.C. herring fishery in wake of declining stocks

Sierra Club B.C. and some fisheries scientists are calling for a moratorium on B.C.’s herring fishery because of fears declining stocks could affect the entire marine ecosystem.

“Herring are a keystone species, if ever there was one,” said Colin Campbell, Sierra Club marine campaigner. “Their ecological importance and declining abundance demands an immediate precautionary response.”

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Herring are eaten by coho and chinook salmon, humpback, minke and killer whales, other marine mammals and seabirds. Herring roe is eaten by bears and wolves, and the roe-on-kelp fishery — which does not kill the fish — is important to coastal First Nations.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada should stop herring fisheries until populations rebuild to the point that stocks are healthy enough to sustain the ecosystem, Campbell said.

DFO surveys five areas for herring fisheries and, this year, decided to open only the Strait of Georgia and Prince Rupert. Fishers are allowed to take 20 per cent of the estimated biomass.

The Central Coast, Haida Gwaii and West Coast of Vancouver Island have remained closed for several years because stocks could not sustain a fishery.

“Taking the large breeding females for their roe has had a massive impact on the fish and their predators,” Campbell said.

No one at DFO was able to comment Tuesday on the call for a herring fishery moratorium.

Ann Salomon, marine ecologist and assistant professor of applied ecology at Simon Fraser University, said there are ecosystem, economic and constitutional reasons to support a moratorium.

“Herring are amazing. They forage fish that transfer energy from the bottom of the food chain to the top,” she said. “Their job in the ecosystem is much larger than they are given credit for.”

Species such as halibut and salmon are important to B.C.’s economy and culture. Studies have shown that herring are worth more as food for larger fish than extracted from the ocean, Salomon said.

“You get a bigger bang for your buck if you keep the herring in the water,” she said.

There is also a constitutional issue — First Nations are supposed to be consulted about fisheries, she said.

Herring populations are difficult to pin down because populations fluctuate and, as schooling fish, they are difficult to count, Salomon said. “So how much risk are we willing to accept when it comes to these fish?” she asked.

Dana Lepofsky, co-ordinator of SFU’s Herring School, said it is worrying that stocks are not recovering in areas that have been closed to fishing for years.

“We are clearly in trouble, so let’s take some breathing time and figure out where we are going,” she said.

However, Paul Kershaw, Area D Gillnetters Association president, said stocks in the Strait of Georgia are healthy and the fishery is sustainable. “A lot of other fisheries harvest 50 per cent or more,” he said.

The roe is the most profitable part of the fishery, but the rest of the fish is made into animal feed or pellets for fish farms, Kershaw said.

Although herring have left some areas, they are re-appearing elsewhere, he said. “They are spawning in places where they haven’t spawned for decades, so it’s not all doom and gloom.”

However, Kershaw would like DFO to consider the effect of fish farms. “The areas that are closed have a significant number of fish farms,” he said.

Colleen Dane, B.C. Salmon Farmers Association spokeswoman, said there is no evidence farm fish are eating herring.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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