SpruceRoots Magazine - June, 1998

Illustration by Yaku | Sidebar - Fishing down the food web

Pacific herring is a pelagic species which occurs in inshore and offshore waters on both sides of the North Pacific. In the eastern Pacific it ranges from California to the Beaufort Sea. The Queen Charlotte Islands (QCI) stock is one of five major B.C. herring stocks. Catches were first reported from this area in 1937. Because of conservation concerns the commercial roe herring fishery has been closed since 1994... - excerpt from DFO stock status report, July 1997.

Pacific herring, or clupea pallasi, is a small fish with a major role in the lives of nearly every coastal species on land or under water in BC. Herring swarm beneath the surface of the Pacific in huge schools often numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Because of their size and historic abundance, they support the existence of dozens of species from cormorants, merganzers, and sea lions to chinook, coho, killer whales and porpoises.

Herring are the bread and butter of BC's coast fishery. They are at the centre of a vast network of inter-dependence among marine plant and animal life, and the survival of many species depends on the health of herring stocks.

Herring have a position at the centre of the ecological landscape. This season the little fish were at the centre of a controversy that erupted on the local political landscape as fishermen, fisheries managers, and the Haida Nation clashed over the role islands herring had to play in BC's commercial fishery.

Every February and March schools of herring head for the many shallow bays and inlets along BC's coast to spawn. Female fish line the ocean floor with their eggs (called roe) while males cloud the water with sperm (called milt). Herring can survive and spawn for as many as ten years. But, they usually begin spawning at three and continue at their most productive in years four and five.

Herring roe are a traditional source of food for the Haida who harvest kelp covered in roe after the spawn, and eat it dried or salted. The object of the roe-on-kelp fishery is to harvest only the herring's eggs.

From the mid-40s until the mid-60s herring were the prime target of BC's commercial 'reduction fishery.' Enormous numbers were caught and reduced to fish oil and meal used for animal feed and crop fertilizer. On Haida Gwaii, the 'reduction fishery' hauled a record 77,500 tonnes of herring from local waters in 1956, a weight roughly equivalent to that of 120,000 people. The huge catches decimated the fishery and the federal government closed it in 1967 when herring stocks collapsed coast-wide. It stayed closed until 1972 when the modern roe fishery began.

Demand for roe in Asian countries, where it enjoys a market as a prized delicacy, is what supports today's commercial fishery.

Herring stocks are monitored and sampled until, often just hours before they spawn and the roe is 'ripest', they are hauled out of the water in huge seine nets capable of corralling entire schools. The are fish gutted for the eggs which are then graded, frozen, and shipped offshore.

The roe-herring fishery on the islands closed after the 1994 season when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DRO) decided local stocks were too weak to support a commercial harvest. The fishery stayed closed until this year when federal fisheries managers predicted islands herring stocks had recovered to the point where they could again be opened to industry. That decision led to the launch of "Operation Herring Storm" by the Council of the Haida Nation.

. . .

It's Saturday March 14,1998 and there are more government employees on hand to witness the islands' herring fishery than ever before. Oddly enough, it is scheduled to be one of the smallest harvests in the fishery's history - 1,500 tonnes.

One Parks Canada vessel, two DFO vessels, two RCMP vessels, a Royal Canadian Navy frigate with a crew of 180, and a Buffalo aircraft buzzing overhead are all on-hand to supervise the event, or to 'provide search and rescue service if necessary'.

Just before 8 am the seiner Ocean Achiever makes her first set and she's instantly besieged by a small flotilla of skiffs and fishing boats crewed by noisy Haidas. They drive off the shimmering mass of fish the Ocena Achiever aimed to encircle with her net. When she hauls in her gear a short while later, the seiner has a mere 45 tonnes of fish. Fifteen minutes later the Snow Cloud meets similar resistance but manages to grab 80 tonnes. Then the Shani Lynne takes 24 tons and the Pacific Warwind comes up empty. By now it's 11:30 and the Queen Charlotte Islands herring fishery, an event often ending only minutes after it begins, has dragged on for three and a half hours.

DFO promised roe-herring licence holders a catch of 1,500 tonnes, but when the sun sets and the Nordic Queen makes the day's last set at around 7 pm, the total catch comes in at just under 450.

. . .

The disagreement that drove the Haida to action goes deeper than a simple fight over how many herring are in the water.

The Haida and DFO both agree that herring are different from salmon in that they do not necessarily return to the same bay to spawn every year. DFO's rationale for opening the roe herring fishery in 1998 is that every fish returning to spawn in islands' waters is part of a single, large, homogenous stock and as such can sustain a small harvest. The Haida on the other hand believe local herring form several small substocks or 'discreet' stocks. Because the fishery tends to catch its quota entirely from one particular bay or inlet, the Haida worry discreet stocks are being eliminated one after the other as the fleet targets a new area each season until there are no healthy stocks left.

. . .

Ron Brown Jr. fished roe- herring for 11 years. His last season was in 1990 but he still remembers what it was like when the fish were everywhere and the money was good.

"It's what we used to call the biggest lottery in BC," he recalls.

The licence was the ticket, the opening the draw, and the quota for the season was the prize. When DFO opened the fishery each licence holder would set nets and haul herring until word came to stop. Managers, glued to their radios, would listen as skippers called in their catches and then tried to pick the right moment to end the action.

More often than not, that moment came too late. The herring fishery was notorious for exceeding its quota, and not once in the ten years prior to 1994 did the islands' herring fishery come in at or under allocation.

Today, things have changed. The roe herring fishery is a pool fishery and Brown is now president of the Council of the Haida Nation.

. . .

The pool fishery is DFO's solution to the problem of trying to meet quota. Instead of a free-for-all where the best or luckiest boat wins, it's more like a guaranteed investment. Each licenced boat is obliged to show up on the fishing grounds where two or three are selected to catch the season's quota. The rest watch as the fish are caught and then evenly divided among all 12 licence holders.

It takes the challenge, the skill, and the fun out of fishing. But it prevents the seiners from completely decimating stocks as they have in the past and, according to Ocean Fisheries president Ed Safarik, it makes sense under the circumstances.

"It's okay," he says. "It's not a gold rush fishery any more."

Safarik says the pool fishery combined with low-quality roe and weak Asian markets meant this season's catch didn't make anyone a millionaire, but it was better than not having one at all.

Ocean Fisheries sailed three boats to Skincuttle Inlet in March and Safarik was there coordinating them himself during the Haida protest. Safarik saw no shortage of herring in the water. It was only tough to get at them because of all the interference.

"The protest part wasn't much fun," he remembers. "Fortunately, it turned out there was a lot of herring. We could have caught ten thousand tonnes in one afternoon."

"If they say there were more than 10,000 tonnes of herring on the islands they're full of crap," says CHN President Ron Brown Jr.

Brown is talking about DFO's 1998 stock assessment of local herring. The assessment is important because it will decide what kind of harvest, if any will be allowed in 1999. When the numbers are released by DFO this fall they will also confirm whether or not the department's 1998 estimates were correct and the fishery harvested an acceptable amount of herring. Brown insists the numbers should bear out what the Haida have been saying all along.

"There is a shortage. We still can't figure out why they had a fishery up here."

According to Brown, areas like Rennel Sound and Skidegate Inlet supported herring spawns of 50-70,000 tonnes.

These claims are supported by catch statistics from the period which indicate the fishery routinely caught more herring in an afternoon than even DFO's most optimistic scientists believe spawn in every bay and inlet on Haida Gwaii today. "How long do they need to wait before they realize there's really a problem?" asks Brown.

Greg Thomas, Pacific herring coordinator for DFO, says the problem was addressed when DFO closed the fishery four years ago.

"The current trend is an increasing trend. We saw more fish in 1998 than we saw in 1997," and an increasing trend is cause for an opening - even one as small as 1,500 tonnes. Thomas says although the Haida made their objections clear, DFO decided the islands could sustain a small fishery. By allowing one, the department hoped to ease pressure on stocks in southern BC.

Thomas says DFO monitors herring stocks with sonar and those readings, together with actual dives, provide a reasonably accurate estimate of the size of herring stocks. He emphasises DFO's conservative quotas for herring - the department will only allow the fishery twenty percent of the stock's estimated total size - also help prevent overfishing.

Thomas skirts the issue of why local herring stocks have dropped to under 20,000 tonnes when they once numbered well over 100,000 and simply attributes the lower numbers to 'a change in production regime' herring is experiencing all along the coast.

. . .

On Sunday, March 15, 1998, day two of Operation Herring Storm, roe herring fishermen in Skincuttle Inlet were met by little Haida resistance. The protesters had made their point the day before and there were few fish remaining in the area anyway. By the end of the day the total catch was under 700 tonnes- less than half the quota.

It wasn't until late on the third day of the fishery in Section Cove that all of the remaining 800 tonnes were taken and the islands' roe herring season closed for 1998.

. . .

It's now more than three months after the protest and very little has changed.

The CHN is considering legal action in the wake of the fishery but at this point no concrete case has emerged. The Haida continue to object to DFO's management strategy for herring. DFO will not recant its belief that islands' herring are all members of the same stock and should be managed as such.

Safarik says the Haida made their point.

Brown says he expects herring stocks in Section Cove will not return in the same numbers next season.

Thomas says he anticipates there will be a roe herring fishery on the islands in 1999.

SpruceRoots Magazine - June, 1998