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Roe herring fishery meets DFO expectations; opposition continues to question sustainability

Fishers brought in less than their quota, but conservation groups are still calling for a moratorium
Seiners fill the waters between Comox and Nanoose Bay during the 2019 roe herring fishery. Photo courtesy of Pacific Wild

The roe herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia ended April 4. But with concern growing for the vital stock and its sustainability, all eyes seemed to be on the fishery this year.

As with other years, the allowable catch was set at 20 per cent of the estimated 135,000 tons of returning herring. Both seiners and gillnetters came in under their quotas with seiners bringing in 7,178 tons of their 8,311-ton quota, and gillnetters catching 8,373 tons of their 11,472-ton quota.

Neil Davis, director of resource management program delivery with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says overall the fishery had good success and there were no surprises in terms of the catch versus the quota.

“It’s pretty common that you are only able to catch some or most as opposed to all of the quota given that you’re trying to catch the fish at just the right time,” said Davis.

Quincy Sample, a Comox fisherman, said he was a few tons short of reaching his quota but still caught more fish than he usually does.

“Last year they spawned for a long time and we had a lot of fishing opportunity. This year … the majority of the fish did it all within a few days,” said Sample. “We don’t actually have the firepower to catch the fish if it all happens at once.”

Despite the opposition to the fishery, he said he is optimistic the fishery will remain open in years to come and is planning on purchasing another skiff.

Davis echoed Sample’s positivity but added the DFO is constantly working with First Nations groups, fisheries stakeholders and conservation groups to review the fishery and management approach and ensure the sustainability of the forage species.

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Returning stocks

Herring can be fairly unpredictable and the spawning season can vary from year to year. Things like the timing and location of the spawn may change based on a variety of factors.

While other types of fish, like salmon, return to their natal streams to spawn, herring do not. Jaclyn Cleary, Pacific herring program head with the DFO, clarified that the department does not predict spawning locations because they do change from year to year.

“We don’t expect herring to return to the same exact location every year. That is, we observe and anticipate year to year differences in spawning locations,” she wrote in an email.

Throughout the fishery, DFO scientists conduct dive surveys, collect biological samples and gather additional data to create a stock assessment.

Finalized information, such as the number of returning herring and the size of the fish, is expected to be available in the summer.

“Generally speaking, with some of the data that’s been collected to date, it sounds like there were no big surprises in terms of what was forecasted,” said Davis.

Opposition not slowing down

Despite fishers catching less than their quota, those opposed to the roe herring fishery continue to question its sustainability.

Grant Scott, president of Conservancy Hornby Island, says that while the DFO is employing the precautionary principle, a truly precautionary approach would be to stop the fishery until the true effects of current environmental factors can be understood.

“We’re saying, to be truly precautionary, they should put up a moratorium and figure out what’s really going on out there,” he said. “There’s so many things that keep increasing like global warming… and we just don’t think 20,000 tons a year out of the Strait of Georgia is sustainable.”

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Scott is the newly elected Hornby Island Islands Trust trustee and attended the Association of Vancouver Island Coastal Communities’ annual meeting on the weekend where a resolution was carried asking the DFO to impose an immediate moratorium on the roe herring fishery or impose a “substantial reduction in the allowable catch volume effective in 2020.”

The resolution, put forward by Daniel Arbour, Area A director with the CVRD, and seconded by Scott, follows a decision by the Islands Trust council to send a letter to Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, also asking for a moratorium on the fishery.

“There’s a lot of concern about a reduction fishery taking place at a time where there’s immense pressure on the ecosystem as a whole,” echoed Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns. “This isn’t about attacking a way of life that these fishers need … it’s about ensuring that we have people that are able to get out on the water and fish for generations to come.”

State of five major stocks

Elsewhere on B.C.’s West Coast, the other four major herring stocks are not fairing so well, but some are beginning to show promise.

The Strait of Georgia was the only area open for commercial fishing this year due to lower numbers in the Central coast, Haida Gwaii, Prince Rupert, and the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Haida Gwaii continues to see low abundance and less productive stocks, despite the fisheries being closed in the area for years.

The central coast stocks have been increasing for a number of years but showed a slight decrease last year. In the Prince Rupert district, the herring are also at a low abundance, but Davis says it is not so low as to preclude the potential for commercial fisheries.

The west coast of Vancouver Island has also been showing some promise as the stocks are slowly rebuilding.

While it’s too early to say what will happen next year, Davis says the precautionary approach is amplified in areas where stocks are recovering.

“I don’t think that we want to entertain a situation where as soon as the stock shows a glimmer of recovery, we sort of reopen fisheries and potentially do damage to it while it’s still in a somewhat fragile state of recovery,” he said.

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