Food for Thought

The Seeds of Partnership

Local farm follows the growing trend of connecting with the consumer…

arly in March each year, sales the waters around Vancouver Island turn a milky blue-green.  It looks like the Mediterranean Sea, and but what’s actually happening is intricately dependent on local conditions.  Everything has to be just right: the water temperature and depth, the marine plant and animal life, the day length.  

Then, and only then, it happens: the herring spawn.  It’s an event of great, and fascinating, significance—biological, socio-economical and cultural.  

For local residents who consider the ocean a source of inspiration, the herring run is an invitation to head to the beach and watch the spectacle.  Colored waters, silver flashes of fish, eagles swooping, herons diving, enormous, raucous flocks of gulls squawking and squabbling, sea lions gorging and rolling their great bulk in the water, fishing boats charging back and forth, and all of it permeated by the pungent smell of ocean life.

For the people on the fishing boats this is a brief and often frenzied opportunity to catch their allowed quota of herring.  The herring, full of eggs that are prized in Asian markets, bring needed income to these fishers and are a significant important component of the commercial fishing economy in BC.  

Biologically, the herring run is the indispensable centre of a web of interrelated life.  All those creatures you see feeding so voraciously during the run, and others not so visible, rely not just on the annual feast of highly-nutritious roe, but also on the year-round supply of herring that are being created during this massive procreative event.  The herring are a keystone species on the food chain, helping ensure the survival of salmon, cod, seals, whales, and many birds, including the threatened Harlequin Duck and the mysterious Marbled Murrelet.  

For environmentalists, the herring run is both a wondrous reminder of the regenerative power of nature, and a cause for worry, due to concerns about the sustainability of the fishery and its impact on the ecosystem, as well as about the impact of global warming on this important species.

For all, the annual herring run is an early harbinger of spring, a shared ritual that speaks of fertility, interdependence and the cycle of life.  

The waters of the Comox Valley—from the Comox Harbor stretching to encircle both Hornby and Denman Islands—is where the herring run is often most abundant.

Retired marine biologist John Tayless explains why this is so, and also talks about just what is happening in those startlingly-pale, opaque waters.  A Denman Island resident and former Dean of North Island College, Tayless brings more than just professional understanding to the topic.  His grandfather had a small fleet of herring boats off the East Coast of England, and Tayless says he grew up knowing the herring fishery intimately.

The herring run, says Tayless, is a marvellous phenomenon.  “It’s a cornucopia of food; it’s nature exploding! 

“Now, why does this happen specifically here?” he asks.  With his British accent and air of learned enthusiasm, he sounds a bit like Richard Attenborough narrating a nature documentary.

“Well, the herring are very specific about what they need.  They need shallow water and intertidal zones with lots of algae so they have something to deposit their eggs on.” 

As well, local waters provide needed sustenance for the larval herring that hatch out of the eggs about 25 days later.  When they first hatch, they live off of a yolk sac, but after that they need a large population of phytoplankton (microscopic ocean plants that are at the very bottom of the global food chain).  And the local conditions are perfect for phytoplankton.  

“The great storms of winter have created lots of minerals in the surface layers of the ocean.  As the days get longer, they are bathed in light,” says Tayless.  “The photosynthesis cycle gets going and the single-celled algae (the phytoplankton) explode like mad.  A week or two later, the zooplankton (microscopic marine animals) that feed on the phytoplankton get going.  The larval herring feed on these.”

The colored water and the roe that seems to be everywhere—floating around in the waves, stuck to kelp, eelgrass, pilings, rocks and driftwood—happen because herring are part of the Clupeid family of fish, which also includes Smelt and Oolichan.  Clupeid reproduction is very inefficient, relying on quantity over quality, says Tayless.  

Unlike salmon, herring don’t have to work hard at spawning.  Basically, thousands of fish of both genders school together.  When the time is right, the males release their sperm, called milt, into the water.  This is what changes the colour of the ocean.  The females then drop their eggs, ideally in shallow waters where they can stick to the seaweed.  With all that sperm floating around, fertilization is no problem.  

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.  

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.

“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.  

“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.  

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.
Several hours of wet snow have just fallen, site
and a soft stillness surrounds Innisfree Farm in Royston.  On this winter day it is difficult to imagine the activities of spring—but that is what Thierry Vrain and Chanchal Cabrera are already planning for, because under the blanket of snow, seeds rest dormant waiting for the gardening season.

Chanchal Cabrera in her greenhouse at Innisfree Farm, which this summer will be the first Community Supported Agriculture inititaive in the Comox Valley.

Chanchal Cabrera in her greenhouse at Innisfree Farm, which this summer will be the first Community Supported Agriculture inititaive in the Comox Valley.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Vrain and Cabrera have a vision for Innisfree Farm—to make it a destination farm, offering a variety of produce as well as value-added community services, and more.  Over cups of herbal tea, a conversation with the couple uncovers the many facets of their plan, revealed as if melting away layers of snow.

“We bought this place two years ago, and started the garden,” says Vrain.  “It was seven acres of pasture, all fenced and cross-fenced; a dozen paddocks for horses. We came here with different ideas about what to do, but really we have known for many years that I want a garden.  So when I retired five years ago, I said I’m going to have a garden, and it’s happening.”

The farm will be more than a garden, however—one of the main aspects of the seven-acre property will be as the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative in the Comox Valley, starting in July 2009.  The concept is simple: create a partnership between a local farmer and nearby consumers, who become members or subscribers in support of the farm.

“It’s exactly like a magazine subscription,” says Vrain.  “Once a week you get your ‘magazine’—except it’s veggies, food.  So you pay up front.  You say, ‘Yes I want the ‘magazine’ for a certain number of weeks.’  It’s a surprise every week—you don’t know what you are going to get.”  He pauses and smiles.  “But obviously we are not going to annoy our customer—if it’s all broccoli or all potatoes, that’s a bit boring!  I want to do exactly the opposite of that.  I want to grow a whole variety of vegetables, especially greens; really nutritious food.”

In exchange for paying in advance at the beginning of the growing season, when the farm needs financing, CSA members receive fresh, healthy produce throughout the season. Money and employment remains in the community.  To many people, a CSA is the answer to the globalization of our food supply.

“The whole north field is going to be a vegetable garden, with small fruits, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, medicinal plants and every vegetable you can name,” Vrain says.  “I’m planning 50 different kinds of vegetables!”

Adds Cabrera:  “We have a 20 week season that we are going to be supplying food—July through November.  Thierry has to plan for each of those 20 weeks what vegetables he expects to be ready each week, and then he works backwards to when they need to be planted—so he’s planting lettuces every couple of weeks!”

“Fruit trees, and nut trees—all kinds,” continues Vrain.  “All the regular apples, pears and plums, and then everything I can lay my hands on that is a little bit different—hazelnuts and English walnuts, Chinese plum, Japanese heartnut, loquat and medlar…”

This broad array of goods, adds Cabrera, is what will keep it interesting for people.  “

“Basically it’s like a neighborhood farm,” says Vrain.  “We have several people interested in the CSA. I have absolutely no anxiety about marketing—right now I am happy to start slow. I was planning on three to four families, and we have that, so I am happy. Next year we will expand to a bigger number.  Maybe by July I will know already that I can handle more.”

One Response to The Seeds of Partnership

  1. Hello dear… I miss you and hope to see you in the future!!! I also wanted to tell you that you have always been an inspiration to me… I am soon to be in a MPH grad school program with a concentration in Epidemiology.. Still loving herbal medicine and share it with anyone who is interested… Love you!!!