Springtime Harvest

A look at the value and the impact of the roe herring fishery in British Columbia

The female salmon, on the other hand, puts a lot more work into spawning, digging a nest to put the eggs in, and then covering them up with her tail after fertilization.  This makes it more likely the eggs will hatch successfully, so she only lays 5,000 eggs, whereas the female herring in her prime lays 30,000—just to be sure of producing two live adult herring.

It is these eggs, or roe, that drive the herring fishery.  Herring roe is a prized delicacy in Japan, where it is known as Kazunoko.  This explains why the herring fishery is such a frenzied affair—there is only a short window of time in which the females are full of eggs, but have yet to drop them.

Once the fish are caught, they are taken to fish processing plants, most of which are located in the Lower Mainland, where they are frozen.  Later the females are separated out from the males and the roe is removed.  There are 20-30 types of roe products, based mainly on variation in size and grade.  Some roe is marketed with elaborate gift packaging to create a high-end product; some is sold in bulk.  The male herring, and the remains of the females, are rendered into dog, cat and poultry food, as well as fish fertilizer, a process called reduction.


Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The roe herring fishery, in its current form, has been going on for about 40 years.  But the harvesting of herring roe goes back far longer, to before Europeans set foot on Vancouver Island.  At that time, on the West Coast, the March new moon was the Moon of the Herring Spawn.  Many First Nations, including the Nuu’chah’nulth, Salish and Kwagiulth peoples, would lower branches of cedar or hemlock into the water, leaving them to collect the spawn with lines attached to rocks.  After one or two days, the men would raise the branches, white with spawn, and the women would dry and store them away in cedar boxes for the coming winter, reports writer/activist Guy Dauncey in EcoNews.

At Coffin Point, near Ladysmith, families from the Cowichan, Malahat, Nanaimo and Penelakut bands would meet every year with families from the Chemainus band to conduct their spawn-on-branches fishery, which they call chummish.  The last traditional chummish fishery took place in 1989, according to journalist Terry Glavin, but the spawn-on-branches technique hasn’t been forgotten.

Tayless recalls visiting Bella Bella in the 1990s and watching the children arrive for school by water taxi on an early March morning.  As they climbed onto the dock, they lay cedar boughs in the water.  At the end of the day, they’d retrieve their branches for a nutritious snack during the commute back home.

Another variation on harvesting herring roe is known as roe-on-kelp.  Anyone can do this by picking a piece of roe-encrusted kelp out of a tide-pool, and either nibbling on it fresh or taking it home and drying it (you eat the whole thing).  But it is also done on a commercial level by seine boats.  The boats net the herring, purse them up inside the boat, attach a large cage full of kelp to the net, leave the herring in the cage till they drop their eggs, then release the herring back into the open water.

This type of fishery has much less potential for environmental harm, because it leaves the herring alive, says Tayless.

Like many observers, Tayless thinks the herring fishery poses serious threats to the West Coast marine ecosystem.  Over the past few decades, Tayless says he has seen the herring fishery get smaller and smaller as stocks drop.

“You know how people say there used to be so many salmon you could walk on their backs?  It’s the same with the herring.  There used to be huge runs all up and down the coast—you’d see the boats out at Nanoose Bay, Little Qualicum, and on the West Coast too, and up at the Queen Charlottes.  Not anymore.