I was looking out the window the other day and I realized the grass was getting long enough to cut and for some reason I thought of the often quoted saying “Herring are the grass of the seas – everybody eats them from small fish and birds that feed on the roe and the little herring all the way up the ecosystem to salmon, halibut, lingcod, whales, seals, sea lions and people.” There is no stage in the life of a herring that some creature isn’t trying to make a meal of them.
This year’s herring fishing was a little different in that there was a significant food fishery that was combined with the bait fishery. The food aspects of the fishery caught my attention because I feel it is morally more defensible than the roe herring fishery where only the roe from the females is used directly as human food. The herring fishery at the commercial level deals in thousands of tons caught by seine boats and gillnets. So if you feel inclined to go out and catch your daily quota of 20kg for bait or pickled herring, you are not having a measurable impact on the stocks. The personal use of herring by recreational anglers is a tiny fraction of the catch.
There is more than one set of figures on the biomass of the Strait of Georgia stocks this year but from what I understand the season was set on an estimated biomass of approximately 91,500 tons with a planned harvest rate of 20 per cent for all users. To date the best catch figures I was able to get are as follows:
• Food and bait – 4,400 tons
• Roe herring – Gillnets – 6,530 tons, which is over their quota of 6,350 tons.
• Roe herring – Seines – 4,600 tons which is under their quota of 6,650 tons and they are still fishing as of this writing.
If the seine boats take their quota in the next few weeks, the total for the commercial fishery will be in the neighbourhood of 18,000 tons or close to the 20 per cent of the estimated biomass.
Each year the fishery takes place in different areas of the Georgia Strait. Most of the fish in the 2012 fishery were taken in water south of Area 14. This year a major portion of the fishery took place in Area14 waters, much of it in the waters around Denman and Hornby islands.
Pacific herring stocks are in low numbers generally throughout the coast. Of the five coastal regions where we harvest herring, ours is by far the largest, with only a small commercial harvest in the Prince Rupert area.
We are assured by Fisheries and Oceans Canada that the fish are currently in a low cycle and as long as they keep the harvest below 20 per cent in the stocks that allow a fishery, all will be well. In the past we have had this type of assurance and threatened stocks have not come back.
Many fish stocks throughout the world are over fished and in severe states of decline. Our federal government is cutting back on numerous types of support services that contributed to the management of our marine fisheries At many stages in the lives of most salmon, herring play the role similar to alfalfa, hay, or grain we use in our meat industry. Without the “herring grass of the sea” contribution to the food web we would have few salmon.
Oceans are warming up caused by climate change. I have been attending a series of lectures sponsored by Elder College at North Island College. The chemistry of our ocean waters in the Strait of Georgia is becoming more acidic. It has serious implications for shellfish and other species.
Among the problems starting to appear is the importance of growing food locally. In the 2013 commercial herring fishery we harvested about 4,000 tons of herring for food. As the importance of growing our food locally increases, can we look forward to harvesting less fish for roe and more for food?
Over the years I have bought quite a lot of locally produced herring for bait. As part of my research for this column I bought four tins of canned herring processed in Eastern Canada. Can we process food herring locally?
Notice: SFAC Area 14 Comox Valley is meeting at the Courtenay Fish and Game Clubhouse on Friday, March 15 at 6 p.m.
Ralph Shaw is a master fly fisherman who was awarded the Order of Canada in 1984 for his conservation efforts. In 20 years of writing a column in the Comox Valley Record it has won several awards.