Three days after setting his nets in the Strait of Georgia between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island, Josh Young returned home to Pender Harbour. The herring he expected to catch was nowhere to be found.
“I’ll be honest…the stocks I saw this year weren’t the healthiest I’ve ever seen,” Young said. “We didn’t catch all of our quota.”
Young was not alone. When the season opened on March 3 for seine boats, they filled up with foot-long silver 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 only takes a few days for the quota to be filled. But when the season finally closed on March 28, the total catch was just over 4,000 tonnes, just over 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 also seems to have surprised the department. DFO tries to manage herring stocks using aerial surveillance, sonar soundings and even divers in the water conducting surveys. He then coordinates the opening of the season with when the herring arrive to spawn.
That’s because these are the eggs anglers like Young seek out. It is very popular in the Japanese market.
After the eggs are removed from the females, the fish are ground for pet food or fish farms.
Prior to this past season, DFO estimated that there were over 70,000 tonnes of herring in the Strait of Georgia. In the past, the total allowable catch was set at 20% of the estimate. But because stock assessments over the past few years suggest declining stocks, federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray cut the quota to just 10%.
Commercial fishermen still could not fill it.
This surprises conservationists like Grant Scott. A former commercial fisherman, he thinks 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 fishing, but for the whole environment.”
Calls for the moratorium
Herring is an essential forage fish for larger species like salmon and whales.
Scott chairs the Hornby Island Conservancy, one of many groups that have been calling for a moratorium on all commercial herring fishing for several years.
“We really lobbied for a herring recovery program, which is to do science, leave the fish alone for five years, let the stocks recover, and provide money to the fishermen so that they are phasing out of the industry,” Scott said, acknowledging people will suffer from the complete closure of a lucrative fishery.
But how much it will hurt may be a matter of perspective. The most recent figures published by the Government of British Columbia show that the value of all herring exports has been declining for years, from $36.2 million in 2018 to $28.6 million in 2020. Most of this sum comes from roe sales in Japan, although China also buys a lot of BC herring.
Emmie Page, an activist with the group Pacific Wild, suggests giving up fishing is a relatively small economic concession to secure a species’ future.
“A moratorium that completely reduces that fishing pressure for a few years removes 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 closed four of five commercial herring fishing areas off the coast of British Columbia, leaving only the Strait of Georgia open.
Industry spokesman Rob Morley was not among those who cheered.
“The fact that the minister closed the fishery in our view was a bad decision,” said Morley of the Herring Research and Conservation Society office in North Vancouver. “It’s not based on stock status or science.”
Industry says no need to worry
Morley says BC’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 are included. He also says that there is no need to be alarmed.
“You don’t determine how many fish there are by how many fish are caught,” he insisted.
The explanation for what happened to the herring this year could be buried in survey data that DFO says won’t be analyzed and made public for months. It’s possible that DFO was wrong in its estimates or that the herring had largely finished spawning and left the area before fishermen like Josh Young arrived with their nets.
CBC’s questions to the ministry about its findings went unanswered. A spokesperson for Minister Murray made a statement to CBC that reads like previous statements about the health of herring stocks.
In it, Murray acknowledges that the “stocks are in a fragile state”.
Young says he also cares about herring – for the past 30 years it has helped him raise his family. He bristles at being portrayed as the “greedy fisherman” who would “kill every single one of them”.
He says a moratorium is premature without the science to back it up.