The commercial herring roe fishery is a significant, short-lived event that occurs off the coast of Vancouver Island each spring.
“The Pacific coast herring are considered high quality and the roe is highly desired, especially in Japan,” said Nancy Marshall, a former herring fish boat owner and MARS volunteer. “Sometimes the run is so strong fish boats can reach their quota limits in one hour or less.”
The fleet total allowable catch is determined each year by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. And it is Fisheries and Oceans that determines when the fishery will open. The opening of the fishery depends on the roe.
Brenda Spence has been with Fisheries and Oceans for 30 years and is manager of the resource.
“We set the total catch limits for the fishery to ensure the resource is sustainable, and we test the age classes and the quality of the roe to determine when we can open the fishery,” she said, from the Coast Guard vessel Neocaligus. “The roe is at its peak just before spawn. To test the roe, we put out a seine net, and from the net we take a small hoop net and then a bucket of herring – that’s what we test.”
When the roe is ready, the fishing begins until the quotas are reached. This is a labour- intensive fishery that includes processing the roe before export. The continuation of the fishery depends on the catch limits set by Fisheries and Oceans.
Herring are a long lived (up to 15 years) fish species that do not die after they spawn and can reach lengths close to 50 centimeters. The older and larger the fish get, the more eggs they lay. Herring move in vast schools, sometimes kilometres long, and migrate to shallower waters annually to spawn.
Herring are also an extremely valuable food source for several species of duck, auklets and birds of prey, as well as several species of seals, sea lions, whales, salmon and other fish.
It is also a highly valued food source by First Nations where they collected herring spawn through a method called spawn on kelp.
With this method, none of the herring are killed and only the eggs are taken.
For more than 10 years, the herring caught in the test fishery are delivered to MARS to help feed the many injured eagles and herons under care. “Many of the fishers that run the test program for us want to support MARS,” said Spence. “And they go out of their way to take the buckets of herring to dock for MARS staff.”
The gift of the herring represents a valuable donation for the team at the wildlife rescue centre.
“Last year we looked after 39 eagles and 13 herons,” says Warren Warrtig, president of MARS Wildlife Rescue. “And these birds need five or six herring every day. The delivery of 1,100 pounds of fish makes a big difference for us and will last us most of the year.”