Springtime Harvest

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

The goal of the Management Plan is to assure conservation of the resource while allowing sustainable harvesting opportunities, says Coke.  The Plan acknowledges the importance of herring in the marine ecosystem and offers assurances that the current regulatory system is sufficient.

“It is recognized that herring plays a critical role in the ecosystem and are a food source for a variety of species.  The precautionary harvest rate of 20 per cent of the mature biomass ensures that 80 per cent of the adult population is available to predator species and are protected for future production.  Additionally, since no harvest occurs on immature herring, all of these fish are available to support ecosystem processes.  Research is ongoing to better understand these ecosystem processes and the role herring plays in maintaining the integrity and functioning of the ecosystem,” states the Plan.

Coke points out that although environmentalists point to declining herring stocks as justification for a fishery moratorium, other factors beyond fishing affect the herring population.

“Environmental factors can be far more significant than fishing impact.  This is an animal that has a 99 per cent mortality rate from egg to larval stages.  With these kinds of mortality rates, fishing impacts can be extremely insignificant.  There’s a lot of annual natural variation in herring stocks,” he says.

The herring population has had downswings and upswings before, he says.  This is part of a natural cycle caused by a wide variety of influences.

“As an example, in 1986 we had no fishery in the Strait of Georgia [due to low herring population], then there were increasing stocks right into the early 2000s, and then there was a declining cycle again.  It’s highly variable and the DFO quotas respond each year to these variations.”

This year, for instance, estimated biomass for the five DFO regions is 93,053 metric tons, up from last year’s 77,500 metric tons; however, the 2007 amount was down 26 per cent from 2006 (105,100 metric tons).

Critics of the industry respond that regardless of what factors affect the herring population, the best course of action is to stop the fishery.

Monitoring the herring biomass is not enough, they say.  You also have to look at the health of the species that rely on them for food.  These species and their habitat is already under stress from many factors—rising water temperatures due to global warming, sea lice from fish farms, loss of habitat due to aquaculture, hardening of the shoreline from urbanization, destruction of eelgrass beds, chemical toxins, changes in predator patterns, invasive species and increased shipping and boat traffic.

Given all these pressures, any reduction in herring stock can have a detrimental impact.  With bellies full of herring, activists say, coastal wildlife could more easily withstand these other stresses.

As in all discussions about natural resource management, the challenge appears to lie in finding the balance between economic and environmental needs.

Last year, the fishery was worth a total of $18.6 million to BC fishers; with a wholesale value (which includes the income made by the fish plants) of $57.6 million.

However, this too has been declining in recent years.  A number of factors have driven down roe prices: Japan’s depressed economy, changes in Japanese culture and demographics, and competition from roe fisheries in Alaska, the East Coast and some Scandinavian countries.

“It’s certainly more and more challenging to make money successfully in this fishery.  It’s a long way off from the heydays of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the price of a ton of roe was around $5,000,” says Coke.  “Now it’s couple of grand or less.”

Still, for the crew of the approximately 1,500 boats that are licensed to fish for herring in BC waters each year (as regulated by DFO, there are 252 seine licences and 1,268 gillnet licences), the roe herring fishery is a valued source of income.

Complex questions about how to balance economic and environmental needs are, of course, a reliable characteristic of Vancouver Island life—just like, well, spawning fish.  The more we learn about all aspects of these questions, the more connected we are to this place we call home.

Wherever one stands on the issues, it’s almost impossible not to feel a thrill of excitement each year when the squawking of the gulls becomes deafening, the sea lions frolic close to shore, and the annual marine rite of spring, the herring run, turns the waters milky blue-green.