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Island Voices: Flaws in herring management undermine Salish Sea’s health

From San Francisco Bay to southeast Alaska, every industrial herring-roe fishery has been closed, due to collapsing stocks and declining catch value. Today, the Strait of Georgia herring-roe fishery is the last one open to seine and gill nets.
Except for the east cost of the Island, Salish Sea herring populations are not recovering to historic levels.

From San Francisco Bay to southeast Alaska, every industrial herring-roe fishery has been closed, due to collapsing stocks and declining catch value.

Today, the Strait of Georgia herring-roe fishery is the last one open to seine and gill nets. Many people are asking if we should be fishing this critically important forage fish at all, given the severe decline in our chinook salmon and southern resident killer whales.

In a recent opinion piece, Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson did admit that Pacific herring is “an iconic species” for British Columbia as he went on to praise DFO fisheries management (“Herring fishery will leave enough to sustain resident killer whales,” March 31). Unfortunately, the minister can’t just tip his hat to “science-based decision-making” when he defends B.C.’s controversial herring fishery and leave it at that. The science that DFO uses to justify its decision-making is flawed.

The minister of fisheries and oceans has the responsibility to prioritize fish conservation above commercial, recreational and even First Nations’ subsistence-fishing allocations. We all need to hold Fisheries and Oceans Canada accountable for managing fisheries under the precautionary principle.

For example, forecasting the size of the herring population in the Strait of Georgia is not as simple as Wilkinson suggests. This year’s population estimate was highly uncertain. DFO estimated a spawning biomass of 122,921 tonnes, with a 90 per cent credible interval of 67,071 to 221,362 tonnes. That’s a range of more than 154,000 tonnes. Given that wide interval, how can the public have confidence in DFO’s claim that the population is at historic highs?

By DFO’s own admission, herring have been over-predicted and overfished in the Strait of Georgia six times in the past 15 years, a disturbing 40 per cent of the time.

According to DFO scientists, the most effective way to account for these errors and prevent overfishing would be to cut the harvest rate in half: from 20 per cent of the herring population — which has been the status quo since 1983 — to 10 per cent. Yet this year’s herring-roe fishery was approved by the minister with a 20 per cent harvest rate.

The justification is that a 20 per cent harvest rate is cautious — that it leaves enough of the population to feed chinook and coho salmon, halibut, rockfish, lingcod, humpback whales, pinnipeds, seabirds and all of the other animals that rely on herring. But that is not what peer-reviewed ecosystem models conclude.

Why does the minister not direct his staff to investigate how leaving 15,000 metric tonnes of Pacific herring in the Strait of Georgia would benefit the ecosystem, instead of narrowly focusing on justifying the commercial fishery?

This management approach is the same approach that resulted in the collapse of herring in Haida Gwaii, the North Coast, the Central Coast, and the west coast of Vancouver Island. Even when populations in those areas were too small and scientists advised closure, a previous minister tried to open commercial fisheries. It was First Nations who stepped in to protect herring stocks with injunctions and direct action, time and time again.

A big commercial herring-roe fishery in front of the Tla’amin First Nation village Tishosum, in 1984, robbed that community of its priceless herring spawn. The herring did not return, and members of the Tla’amin Nation now have to cross the Strait of Georgia to Hornby Island to collect herring roe, because they still cannot fish for herring in their territory.

In the past four decades, herring have stopped returning to areas in the Strait of Georgia where they spawned consistently for thousands of years. The true magnitude of the decline is not recognized by DFO, because it uses 1951 data as the historic baseline — after 70 years of industrial fishing had already decimated herring populations.

A significant concern for local communities is the loss of resident populations. Instead of migrating offshore each summer, resident herring stay in the Strait of Georgia as adults and provide year-round food for other species. In an inexplicable 180, DFO currently denies the existence of resident herring, after managing them for decades.

Commercial catch records dating back to the 1930s show herring were caught in the Strait of Georgia in all seasons of the year, including between May and August, when migratory adult herring should be west of Vancouver Island. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost 50,000 tons of herring were caught in summer months.

Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel are the most productive herring-spawning area on the Pacific coast of North America. Scientists don’t know why herring continue to return to the east coast of Vancouver Island, when other populations are not recovering. There is more work required to understand the impacts of environmental conditions, predator-prey relationships, and other ecosystem dynamics on herring populations and to integrate this information into herring management.

Until herring populations in the Salish Sea recover to their true historic levels and DFO can demonstrate that it is managing forage fish within an ecosystem-based framework, the precautionary approach requires a significant reduction in fishing pressure. Right now, we have the opportunity to protect the last stronghold of herring in British Columbia.

Ian McAllister of Victoria is the executive director of the wildlife conservation organization Pacific Wild.