The case for the Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery
Comox fisherman, Quincy Sample, was laying on the deck of his boat under the warm March sun, waiting for the waves to die down when reached by phone. The fishery opened for gill nets on March 15 in the Strait of Georgia, and Sample was hoping for the right conditions to get his net in the water.
Sample has worked on the ocean for the majority of his life. Growing up on the Sunshine Coast, he started fishing when he was 16, and now, 30 years later, fishing is what supports his family of five.
“It’s not a predictable industry,” he said from his boat, a 30-foot-long aluminum herring skip.
The weather is something that fishermen have to deal with no matter the fishery, but with herring, timing is crucial. Not only does the water have to be relatively calm, the fishermen need to catch the female herring before they have spawned, but when their eggs are at maturity.
“We want to make sure we harvest them when it’s worth the most, otherwise you’re wasting a good resource,” said Sample.
Used to opposition
Throughout his career, Sample has heard every argument against the fishery, but he remains confident the herring stock is being managed properly and sustainably.
He said fishermen are not trying to take every last fish out of the ocean – how could they continue to fish and support their families if that were their goal?
“[Herring are] at high numbers now and we’re taking our quota – only up to 20 per cent,” he said. “But when the fish don’t show up and there’s not enough fish, we don’t fish to that number. We don’t take more.”
According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the herring stocks are at “historically high” levels based on their data that dates back to 1951.
“Do I think that we’re going to over-fish the area to the point where they’re not going to come back? Not one bit,” continued Sample.
The herring fishery takes place at a time of year when no other fisheries are open in the Strait of Georgia, making it an important source of income for many in the industry, including fishermen and plant workers.
|Seiners line the shores of French Creek on March 12 as they wait for the waters to die down enough to get their nets in the water. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns, who was recently named the official fisheries critic for the NDP party, has been advocating for the final B.C. herring fishery to be shut down.
However, he also hopes to increase employment insurance weeks for industry workers who would be affected by a fishery shut down.
But for Sample, who needs the income to support his family, he calls this a “slap in the face.”
“If you’re making $800 to $1,000 a ton and your quota is 140 tons – you do the math, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “An extra EI cheque, that would be a slap in the face. That’s nothing. When he would talk about increasing that as a viable option to shutting the fishery down, it’s ridiculous.”
Throughout his 30 years participating in the fishery, Sample said he has probably invested around $250,000 just to get out on the water to work.
There’s the cost of the boat, netting, maintenance, but also the costs of the fishing licences themselves. This year, Sample bought four of his own licences and leases another 11. Each licence allows the catch of 9.6 tons of herring.
The total allowable catch for this year in the Strait of Georgia – 20 per cent of the total estimated population – is around 21,000 tons of herring, split evenly between seiners and gillnetters.
Fishery based on science
Though Greg Thomas has never been a roe herring fisherman himself, he has worked with the federal government and the industry in various capacities. Previously a fishery manager for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, he is now the executive director of the Herring Conservation and Research Society.
The HCRS is funded by members of the B.C. herring fishery, and contributes to researching, managing and assessing the herring on the west coast of B.C. The organization works with DFO to ensure the herring stock is well managed and harvested at sustainable levels. Annually, the industry contributes around $1.5 million to studying herring along the B.C. coast.
While much of the harvested roe is sold to Japanese markets, according to Thomas, the fishery brings in an average of $40 million to the B.C. economy annually.
According to Thomas, in the Strait of Georgia, the number of herring in the area has been fairly consistent for the last few years and is well above the limit reference point – the absolute minimum population level.
“The issue with herring populations is they’re highly dynamic, they go up and down rapidly over time and they live off of periodic strong recruitment, so new fish coming into the population,” said Thomas. “In the Strait of Georgia, the recruitments have been quite strong.”
In other areas where the fisheries have been shut down, Thomas says the dwindling numbers have been due to environmental conditions, not a defect of fishing.
|Qunicy Sample supports his family of five by fishing and loves to bring them all out on his boat while he works. Photo courtesy of Quincy Sample
Cold water conditions are ideal for herring as there is appropriate food and more of it, and fewer predators around. Changes in water temperatures can affect the types of plankton in the water, which in turn affects the survival rates of herring.
While Thomas can understand the concerns from environmental groups, he believes the demand for the herring roe is there and the scientific basis is sound.
“I think it’s reasonable to allow for some modest portion of the population to be harvested if you have reasonably sound scientific basis for your fishery – and I believe that’s the case for this one,” he said. “I can tell you that they aren’t interested in a fishery that’s not sustainable. There’s no point in fishing so hard that the population isn’t sustained because, of course, your fishery would not be sustained.”
And for Sample, fishing is his way of life. It’s what supports him and his three children, and being able to bring his family out on the boat with him gives him a sense of pride.
“It’s a great way to organically earn an honest living,” he said. “I’m very proud and consider myself lucky to be able to earn a living working with my hands out on the water with my family.”
The case against the Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery
Under the shadow of Mount Arrowsmith, 10 commercial fishing boats bob in the turquoise water near shore, hoping for a change in the weather to get their nets in the water.
It’s been four days since the roe herring fishery opened. Approximately 4,300 tons of herring have been caught by commercial fishing boats, so far a small percentage of the allowable 21,000 tons.
Ian McAllister’s boat, Habitat, drifts lazily on the unsettled water, anchored to a point nearby the mass of commercial fishing boats. McAllister, the executive director of Pacific Wild, had been out on the water since March 9, the first day the fishery opened, to take photos and video, and raise awareness about a fishery he doesn’t think should be open.
“This is the principal food supply of Chinook salmon, and we’ve got southern resident killer whales that are starving to death because they don’t have enough Chinook salmon,” said McAllister. “And yet, we are liquidating the very basis of their food supply.
“We really should be leaving this fish in the water, this fishery should not ever have been allowed to happen.”
|Ian McAllister, executive director of Pacific Wild says herring are the basis of the marine food chain and has been advocating against the Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela
While a long-term argument against the fishery has been that herring are a principal food supply for other marine species, over time, the organization has also begun to notice other adverse effects, characteristic of a population that has been fished for too long.
While Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) scientists say the herring stocks in this area are at “historic highs,” McAllister says the stocks that are present in the Strait of Georgia are becoming less predictable.
“We’ve systematically taken out 20 per cent … of the elder herring – the older herring that would lead the younger schools to spawning grounds and basically teach them how to be herring,” he said. “When you systematically take out all of the elders, you have herring acting very unpredictably.”
Four out of the five roe herring fisheries in coastal B.C. have been closed, and the Strait of Georgia fishery is the only one that remains. McAllister attributes the other closures to overfishing.
Before the fishery opens each year, DFO scientists estimate the number of herring that will return – this year they forecasted 130,000 tons – but throughout the fishery, the numbers are updated as they collect physical samples. On the fourth day of the fishery, the updated estimate was 95,000 tons. Though this number is well below the estimate, it is likely to increase as more fish come into the area to spawn, said Vanessa Minke-Martin, a marine science and communications specialist with Pacific Wild.
|Herring roe can be found washed up on shore from Comox to Parksville during their short spawning season. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela
However, while in some years the forecasted number has been accurate, in others, DFO has overestimated the number of returning herring, resulting in fishing more than 20 per cent of the population.
“If you know that the models tend to overestimate, you should be cautious and aim to catch fewer fish, because then you’re less likely to catch more than 20 per cent of the population, which has happened in the past,” she said.
In six of the last 13 years, the industry has taken above the quota of 20 per cent. However, the years that the industry has not reached its quota could be indicative of a larger issue as well.
Minke-Martin says along with the behaviours of the fish, the structure of the population has also changed.
“Something that we’re concerned about is, are the fishing fleet not catching their quota because the fish are too small? Maybe there aren’t enough older fish which actually have the amount of roe that they want to get,” she said. “The reason that the fishers aren’t getting enough fish is because the actual structure of the population has changed through time because we’ve always taken the biggest fish every year.”
Pressure on federal government
Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns has been putting pressure on Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, calling for a moratorium on the Strait of Georgia herring roe fishery, but his most recent request in the House of Commons was denied in February.
Johns has family working in the fishing industry and is concerned about the livelihood of fishers, but he says the health of such a vital species must also be taken into account.
|Gord Johns, MP for Courtenay-Alberni, has been advocating for a moratorium on the Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery in the house of commons. Recently he was named the NDP's fisheries critic. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela
He says the DFO science used to predict the numbers of herring is the same science that led to the decline of the Atlantic cod populations on the East Coast.
“Our biggest concern and our question to the minister is, what happens if this fishery collapses?” he said. “The commercial fishing jobs that we have are vitally important. So it’s not easy to come out and call for a suspension of a fishery. As a born and raised Vancouver Islander, it’s part of our way of life and we have to do everything we can to support these fishers while we’re calling for a moratorium and support the local economy.”
He suggests extending employment insurance weeks for those who would be affected by a closure of the fishery, as well as making use of the funds being set aside for the protection of marine habitat and species by injecting the funding into fishing communities.
“The government has allocated money, they’ve made announcement after announcement of funding that they’ve dedicated to help support our fish stocks and bringing them back to abundancy, yet they’re still not giving those resources back to our community,” said Johns.
Local residents concerned
Rob Zielinski’s family has owned and operated Hornby Island Diving since the early ’70s.
Typically, Hornby and Denman Island are areas where a lot of spawning occurs and Zielinski has seen first-hand the changes in the marine ecosystem every year.
“For me, our life is under the water, it’s not above the water, and I see the effects of overfishing and decline,” he said. “The fish get smaller, the schools get more broken up, the tonnage varies all the time, but it never gets better, it steadily goes downhill and it’s reaching that point where something needs to be done about it. Its time has passed.”
He adds the waters around Hornby and Denman islands are known for excellent marine life, and it is still quite healthy, but the stocks only seem to decline, they don’t get better.
“There’s more human pressure – whether it be from sport fishing, commercial fishing – and I just want to make sure those resources are here for the future for the next generations.”