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Soundings show low herring numbers in Strait of Georgia

DFO says soundings only give information for in-season fishery management
Seiners filled the waters between Comox and Nanoose Bay during the roe herring fishery a couple of years ago. The numbers appeared to be down this year through March. File photo courtesy of Pacific Wild

From the sounding tests conducted in local waters, it seems there have not been many herring here during the spawning season.

The question is whether they are somewhere else, or anywhere at all. The issue has been a contentious one.

In late 2021, the federal government set a harvest rate of 10 per cent, essentially half of what it had been. In Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP), the spawning biomass for 2022 for the Strait of Georgia (SOG) area was forecast to be 86,713 tons, with a range to 48,237-158,567 tons.

In recent updates, for the roe herring fishery this time of year, the peak estimate for the SOG area was 74,255. Much of this typically shows up in Area 14, which includes locations such as Baynes Sound, the east coasts of Denman Island and Hornby Island, French Creek, Shelter Point, Chrome Island and Lambert Channel. Of late, the peak estimate was listed at 64,500 tons.

Grant Scott of Conservancy Hornby Island said they were hopeful at one point based on the numbers.

“I’m an optimist. I want to see the fish there,” he said during an interview.

Daily notices in March have come up with much lower estimates than forecast. The March 18 total area estimate for Area 14 was just 1,300 tons. During the first week of March, this had been more in the 23,000 to 38,000 range, then suddenly dropped late on March 7. The DFO reports note the assessments are incomplete. Still, the soundings last year indicated noticeably higher numbers.

“The numbers kept going down and down and down,” said Scott, adding the boats went home quickly this season.

He said a retired DFO scientist told them the most predictable spawning area for herring in B.C. is usually off the east shore of Denman Island in Lambert Channel, but that has not been the case this year.

RELATED STORY: Strait of Georgia herring fishery opens, as DFO forecast estimates met

A representative for the commercial fishery, Rob Morley of the Herring Conservation and Research Society, told the Record in mid-March, “Soundings of herring are just very rough estimates of what is in a particular location at any one time. There are very few boats making the estimates and the Strait of Georgia is a big area.”

He stressed they will not know how much herring was present until the spawn is completed and a dive survey can measure the width, length and thickness of the spawn.

“As for what is happening now, it is pure speculation at this point. The spawn may be more or less all done, or there could be another wave of fish coming,” he added.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed the divers’ survey and not in-season sounding information is how the biomass of spawning herring is estimated.

“Sounding information is not considered an estimate of the overall abundance and is not used in the annual stock assessment process. Rather, sounding information is used to provide relative information about where herring are located for the in-season management of fisheries,” a DFO spokesperson said.

Fish move around though, which can pose challenges for the latest estimates. Still, for some, the low numbers in recent weeks cannot be ignored. Ocean conservationist Locky MacLean wrote in a recent blog that the Conservancy Hornby Island has been calling for a moratorium on the herring fishery for five years, as the group thinks the Strait of Georgia population could go the way of the other four major commercial herring fisheries regions and force a closure.

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