Herring row heats up in the Strait of Georgia

“Fisheries management decisions should be based on solid peer-reviewed science not the number of signatures on a petition.” – BC Seafood Alliance.

By Fabian Dawson

The BC Seafood Alliance, the largest commercial fishing organization on Canada’s West Coast, is hailing a plan by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s (DFO) to allow the catch of over 10,000 metric tonnes of herring in the Strait of Georgia next year.

“It’s the right decision,” said Rob Morley of the Herring Conservation and Research Society, adding; “Fisheries management decisions should be based on solid peer-reviewed science not the number of signatures on a petition.”

The plan has triggered howls of protests by environmental conservation and marine tourism organizations who have sent a letter to Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Bernadette Jordan, demanding an immediate suspension of the commercial Pacific herring fishery.

They claim that DFO’s new management plan, which calls for a 20% harvest of herring in the Strait of Georgia giving a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of 10,850 mT, will accelerate the decline of herring stocks on the West Coast.

“This harvest rate is consistent with past years, which has contributed to a 60% decline in the population size since 2016,” said the group Pacific Wild, which is leading the charge for an immediate suspension of commercial herring fisheries in the Strait of Georgia.

“DFO’s refusal to protect our remaining herring stocks by recommending another year of unsustainable fishing completely undermines its own conservation mandate. It is our sincere hope that the new Fisheries Minister, Bernadette Jordan, reconsiders this destructive fishery.”  said Ian McAllister, Executive Director of Pacific Wild.

Representatives of the marine tourism industry also oppose the herring fishery, claiming it jeopardizes the basis of their livelihoods, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars for the B.C. economy, including about $250 million annually from whale watching.

Pacific herring supports salmon, killer and humpback whales, cod and halibut, seabirds and other independent species on the Pacific Coast.

“I have witnessed the collapse of herring in the North Atlantic, and the result will be the same in B.C., unless Canada does more to protect these fragile stocks. As a marine tourism operator, my livelihood and that of countless others directly depends on the health of herring,” said Colin Griffinson, Captain, Pacific Yellowfin Luxury Adventure Charters.

But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the herring stocks are at “historically high” levels based on their data that dates back to 1950.

The commercial fishery will leave a projected 80 per cent of the estimated spawning biomass in the water, ensuring there are enough herring left to spawn and sustain fisheries into the future, DFO maintains.

According to Morley, herring stocks, like most forage fish, are highly dynamic and significant increases or decreases are not unusual based mainly on changes in natural mortality factors.

“A lower harvest rate would not improve biological outcomes but would be devastating to coastal communities, many of them Indigenous,” he said.

“And there is no evidence of any correlation between herring stocks and predator status, including Chinook salmon.”

The Strait of Georgia fishery generated about $50 million for fish harvesters and processors in 2017 and 2018 and keeps fishermen and plants busy for several months when few other fisheries are open. 

With at least 40% participation by Indigenous harvesters, fishing families in communities like Alert Bay on Vancouver Island would be especially hard hit as they struggle to make a living.

“We support evidence-based decision making, said the BC Seafood Alliance’s Christina Burridge.  “It’s simple we fish when the science says we can and we do not when the science says we should not.”

An E-Petition has now been launched on the House of Commons website calling for the suspension of the provincial herring fishery.

The petition has the support of Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, who said that people are very concerned about the inter-dependent species that salmon rely on for their food.

Photo by Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild