Island Voices: Little fish play a big role in marine conservation

Re: “Groups call for closure of herring fishery in Strait of Georgia,” Nov. 5.

It’s a trite fact that B.C. herring are a keystone marine species. These small fish play a critical role within our marine ecosystems along the West Coast.

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For example, they are the most common prey in the diet of chinook salmon. Chinook salmon, in turn, are the primary diet of southern resident killer whales. Many chinook populations are endangered or threatened, and the southern resident killer whale is also listed as endangered.

Due to declining herring populations, marine conservation groups recently called for the B.C. commercial herring fishery to be closed. Flawed government forecasting and biomass estimates continue to permit overfishing of the herring population in the Strait of Georgia. In response, industry spokesperson Rob Morley acknowledged: “The model does show a declining trend since 2016, but it’s 22 per cent, not 60.” He further contended the commercial herring fishery was sustainable.

Regardless of the percentages or the timeline, at least there’s agreement that herring stocks are declining in the Strait of Georgia.

Ecosystem assertions are not based on actual data.

Referencing the survival of chinook salmon and southern resident killer whales, further comments were made, in the original story, by marine mammal researcher Andrew Trites. He stated the presence of commercial seiners leads to a “perception” herring are being overfished and that “conditions should be better for chinook to feed on herring.”

In response to a formal information request for research reports regarding the relationship between Pacific herring (that spawn in the Strait of Georgia), chinook salmon and the southern resident killer whales, the federal government responded to Pacific Wild researchers on Sept. 30:

“Please note that the Fisheries Management branch and Science branch of our Pacific region [sic] advised us that they will be providing a Nil response … We have been advised that there is no other research that DFO has done regarding the impacts the commercial herring fishery has on southern resident killer whales.”

First, it’s mind-boggling that industry representatives want to debate the exact magnitude of herring declines — the point is that herring populations are collapsing, potentially to the detriment of chinook salmon and orcas. Adopting a precautionary principle and correcting any population decline is immediately needed.

Second, it is astounding that the federal government, faced with two struggling species, hasn’t even done any research on the impacts of industrial fishing to population numbers and survival rates of chinook and orcas.

The government needs to do its homework, industry needs to take a step back and we need to look for ways to financially assist our fishers in this transitionary period. Both federal and provincial governments are investing millions of dollars in salmon and whale recovery programs, and we believe the first logical step should be to protect their main food supply — Pacific herring.


Ian McAllister is the executive director of Pacific Wild. Bryce Casavant is a former B.C. conservation officer and is currently the conservation policy analyst at Pacific Wild.

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