Dismal B.C. herring season sparks renewed calls for moratorium

Conservationists are renewing long-standing calls for a moratorium on Pacific herring fishing after fishermen failed to catch an already-reduced quota for a species prized by Asian markets for its roe.

Half-empty herring nets pit fishermen against conservationists

Three days after setting his nets out in the Strait of Georgia between B.C.'s mainland and Vancouver Island, Josh Young headed back home to Pender Harbour. The herring he was expecting to catch were nowhere to be found.

"I will be honest… the stocks I saw this year weren't the healthiest year I've ever seen," Young said. "We didn't catch our entire quota."

Young wasn't alone. When the season opened March 3 for boats equipped with seine nets, they scooped up their fill of the silver foot-long fish in 48 hours. By the time Young and hundreds of others using gillnets arrived on March 5, the fish seemed to have disappeared.

Normally, it takes just days for the quota to be filled. But when the season was finally closed on March 28, the total catch was just over 4,000 tons, a little more than half of what the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had set for a quota.

"It was a different year," Young said stoically.

The result appears to have surprised the department, too. DFO tries to manage the herring stocks using surveillance from the air, sonar soundings and even divers in the water doing surveys. It then co-ordinates the season opening with when the herring arrive to spawn.

That's because it's the roe that fishermen like Young are after. It's highly prized in the Japanese market.

After the roe is removed from the females, the fish are ground up for pet food, or feed for fish farms.

Ahead of this most recent season, DFO estimated there were over 70,000 tons of herring in the Strait of Georgia. In the past, the total allowable catch has been set at 20 per cent of the estimate. But because stock assessments over the past few years suggest declining numbers, federal Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray slashed the quota to just 10 per cent.

Commercial fishermen still couldn't fill it.

That startles conservationists like Grant Scott. A former commercial fisherman, he believes the empty nets are a clear sign that Pacific herring are on the verge of collapse.

"It's a disaster," Scott said from his home on Hornby Island. "Not so much for the fisheries, but the whole environment."

Calls for moratorium

Herring are a critical forage fish for larger species like salmon and whales.

Scott chairs Conservancy Hornby Island, one of a number of groups that have been calling for a moratorium on all commercial herring fishing for several years.

"We've been really pushing for a herring recovery program, which is to do the science, leave the fish alone for five years, let the stocks rebuild and provide money to the fishermen to phase out of the industry," Scott said, acknowledging people will be be hurt by a complete closure of a lucrative fishery.

But just how much it will hurt may be a matter of perspective. The most recent figures released by the B.C. government show the value of all herring exports has been declining for years, dropping from $36.2 million in 2018 to $28.6 million in 2020. Most of that comes from roe sales to Japan, although China also buys a lot of B.C. herring.

Emmie Page, a campaigner with the group Pacific Wild, suggests forgoing the fishery is a relatively small economic concession to ensure the future of a species.

"A moratorium reducing that fishing pressure completely for a couple of years takes away one of the factors that could impact the health of the stock and allows them to recover."

Last December, the federal government appeared to be listening to environmental groups when it shut down four of the five areas where commercial herring fishing is allowed off B.C.'s coast, leaving just the Strait of Georgia open.

Industry spokesperson Rob Morley wasn't one of those applauding.

"The fact that the minister shut down fisheries in our view was a poor decision," Morley said from the office of the Herring Research and Conservation Society in North Vancouver. "It's not based on stock status or in the science."

Industry says there's no cause for worry

Morley says B.C.'s herring industry isn't just about roe. He says it's worth closer to $40 million a year when food and bait sales and value to processors is included. He also says there's no cause for alarm.

"You don't determine how many fish are there by how many fish are caught," he insisted.

The explanation for what happened to the herring this year may be buried in survey data that DFO says won't be analyzed and made public for months. It's possible that DFO got its estimates wrong, or that the herring largely finished spawning and left the area before fishermen like Josh Young arrived with their nets.

CBC's questions to the department about its findings have gone unanswered. A spokesperson for Minister Murray issued a statement to CBC that reads the same as previous statements on the health of herring stocks.

In it, Murray acknowledges that the "stocks are in a fragile state."

Young says he cares about the herring, too — over the past 30 years, it has helped him raise his family. He bristles at being portrayed as the "greedy fisherman" who'd "kill every last one of them."

He says a moratorium is premature without the science to support it.

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