Springtime Harvest

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

“There’s great controversy around the herring fishery, because when you look at the food web in the Strait of Georgia, herring are arguably the most important aspect.  You ask what is dependent on it, and you look at what’s happening.  The salmon population is down, there are restrictions on Coho and Chinook, the ling cod population is down and so is the rock cod.  All of them primarily prey on herring.”

He isn’t against having a herring fishery, but ideally would like to see it limited mainly to roe-on-kelp and food herring.  “I’d like to be able to go to Portuguese Joe’s and buy some roe there.  We could have a kipper industry,” he says, referring to smoked herring, a traditional food in the British Isles and Northern Europe.

“The mass harvesting of eggs annoys the hell out me,” he says.  “If you want to maintain a healthy population you don’t take the very most basic element of reproduction.”

Tayless is not a lone voice.  There are protests every year up and down the coast, and environmental groups such as Western Canada Wilderness Committee and, locally, Citizen Support for Marine Mammal Protection, have been asking the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to place tighter limits on the fishery.

Dauncey, writing in EcoNews, paints a vivid picture of the decline of the herring population:  “Jake Schweigert, the DFO’s senior herring biologist, found 170 locations where herring used to spawn in abundance before 1980, which were severely depleted or barren by 1990—Porlier Pass, Trincomali Channel, Bedwell Harbour, Saturna Island, Kuper Island, Thetis Island, Saanich Inlet, Simoon Sound, Saltery Bay, Pender Harbour, Texada Island and many more.  Where the herring spawning grounds used to be measured in beach-miles, there are now none.

“The commercial roe fishery began in 1972, working its way around all these bays and inlets.  At Nanoose Bay, they took 10,000 tons in 1978, 1,800 tons in 1983, and there have been no herring since.”

The Western Canada Wilderness Association (WCWC) released a report a decade ago calling for a four-year moratorium on the roe herring fishery to allow stocks to replenish, as well as the legislation of a “forage fish” policy, similar to what is in place in Washington State, which ensures that a portion of the herring stock is first and foremost “allocated to nature” so that wildlife that relies on it gets its share before commercial and recreational fisheries get their allocations.

David Ellis, co-writer of the WCWC report, is even more concerned today.  A former commercial trawler, and later consultant to the David Suzuki Foundation, Ellis now says the fishery has to end for at least a full generation.

“It is irresponsible for government to allow any further herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia when every fish is desperately needed to help the rebuilding of endangered Chinook and Coho, rock fish and ling cod stocks as well as to feed eagles, other birds and marine mammals that depend upon this seriously depleted food source,” says Ellis.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officials say they are aware of these concerns and manage the herring fishery accordingly, with strict quotas on how much herring can be caught in various regions each year.


Approximately 1,500 boats are licensed to fish for herring in BC waters during regulated openings, like this one fishing near Hornby Island.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“I think it’s one of the better managed fisheries in the world,” says Byron Coke, the DFO Roe Herring Gillnet Manager for the Strait of Georgia.  “We take a precautionary approach and there are two safeguards—the 20 per cent harvest rate and the cut off level.”

Each year DFO produces a herring fisheries management plan (the full title is the Pacific Region Roe Herring Integrated Fisheries Management Plan).  The 2009 version is 51 pages long and is available for public viewing and comment on the DFO Comox Region website.

The Plan presents the findings of a number of different types of biological surveys measuring annual fluctuations in the herring population, provides an estimate of the upcoming year’s herring biomass in tons, and lays out the limit on the fishery for each of five BC coastal regions.

If the estimated biomass is below a set amount (the cut-off level), for any region, no roe herring fishery will take place there.  If it is well above the cut-off level, no more than 20 per cent of the biomass can be removed by fishers.  If the biomass is just slightly above the cut-off level, the allowable catch is smaller.  Catch is weighed at the dockside by DFO monitors to ensure these quotas are not exceeded.

This year, just like last year, only two areas will open a roe herring fishery—the Strait of Georgia (from Shelter Point midway between Comox and Campbell River down to the Cowichan/Saanich area) and the Prince Rupert District.  Estimated biomass for the Strait of Georgia for 2009 is 58,985 metric tons, which means the maximum yield for this year is 11,797 metric tons—by far the largest yield in all the BC regions.  The other three regions will stay closed, because biomass estimates are below the cut-off level.