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LETTER - Fishery restrictions not strict enough to protect herring in the Strait of Georgia

Dear editor,
Herring fishery. Photo, Simon Ager

Dear editor,

I will start with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Science Response of 2021. Scientists at the Nanaimo Biological Station on Departure Bay wrote this report and published it in October. DFO science is clear, there are very few herring left in Haida Gwai, Prince Rupert District, Central Coast and the West Coast of Vancouver Island. “Low biomass and low productivity” is how the scientists call it. A slight uptick in herring in Prince Rupert District and the West Coast of Vancouver Island this past year, but still below historic levels. No commercial fishing is allowed.

The only large herring stock left spawns between Comox and Nanaimo. Let me make this claim right now, resident herring do exist in the Strait of Georgia. DFO Management is dead set against this claim. But for evidence I say, chinook salmon are caught in the Strait of Georgia with adult herring in their gut in the summer. Also, the First Nations traditional knowledge knows that large herring were plentiful and eaten almost every day. Finally, SFU archaeology studying herring bones in ancient middens proves that herring were eaten at least 292 days of the year. There were large plentiful herring in the entire Strait of Georgia for millennia, so where are they in 2021? DFO science shows a lack of spawning in Sooke, Victoria, Southern Gulf Islands, Discovery Islands, Campbell River, Sunshine Coast, Pender Harbour, and Cherry Point. Once productive spawning grounds are now empty of herring. The only spawning left is between Comox and Nanaimo.

DFO science doesn’t know what has happened to the herring on the B.C. coast. From the Science Response, Haida Gwai and Central Coast “show evidence of recent prolonged periods of low biomass and low productivity: states that were entered rapidly and were preceded by high biomass.” But no science is given why the herring population crashed and hasn’t rebuilt itself. From DFO data (on the internet) for Ganges Area, herring harvest in 1953 27,000 tonnes, 1954 35,000 tonnes and in 1955 35,000 tonnes reducing in catch until 2004, zero tonnes harvested and zero tonnes spawned in Ganges. And flat-lined at zero from 2004 to 2021. I’m going out on another controversial limb, the herring population crash on the entire outer B.C. coast and most of the Strait of Georgia is caused by over fishing.

Now the Food and Bait seine fishery opened last week in the region Comox to Nanaimo. They are seining up the resident herring. Oh I know, the Herring Industry Advisory Board (spokespiece of the fish processors) quickly points to DFO lack of science on the resident herring question and says, no such thing as resident herring. I say, a resident herring is any adult herring in the Strait of Georgia in the summer fall and winter. Ask any fisher between Comox and Nanaimo, do you find adult herring in chinook guts caught in the summer? They do and those are resident herring.

Make no mistake residents of Comox to Nanaimo, you have good chinook fishing and marine mammals for tourism because you still have resident herring. Herring grow larger every summer in your region of the Strait of Georgia. As the early spring approaches the resident spawners and the migratory spawners seem to mingle and spawn together. Then for as yet unknown reasons, the migrators head out to La Perouse Banks and the residents stay to feed between Comox and Nanaimo.

Here in Sooke, Victoria, Southern Gulf Islands, Discovery Islands, Campbell River, Sunshine Coast, Pender Harbour, and Cherry Point we have no resident herring and our fishing is bad for it. And we don’t have any migratory herring spawning either so we don’t get the spring bonanza of marine life, mammals and birds that you get. We don’t have any herring and our marine life is much much poorer for it. Remember the legend that you could catch a bucket of herring off the Craigflower Bridge in Victoria? Hasn’t been true for many many years. No herring came back to the Gorge to spawn in 2021.

Oh beware, you residents of Comox to Nanaimo, as the Food and Bait seiners take your resident herring. The Herring Industry Advisory Board has other slick comments to soothe, such as, science has shown herring fisheries are managed conservatively and sustainably. What utter malarkey. Where, where, where is a single sustainable herring fishery? No herring fishery is open on the entire outer coast of B.C., because there are no herring. Nothing whatsoever sustainable there. No herring fishery is open in Sooke, Victoria, Southern Gulf Islands, Discovery Islands, Campbell River, Sunshine Coast, Pender Harbour, Cherry Point, all closed to seine herring fishery because there are no herring. Nothing whatsoever sustainable here.

The HIAB does point to good DFO science on the herring population spawning between Comox and Nanaimo. DFO science is very good at knowing how many herring spawned each spring. Now it does take them six months to study the data, compute the algorithms and tell us the final number of spawners. That same DFO science refuses to make an accurate forecast of the returning spawners in the spring of 2022. The returning herring in the Strait of Georgia “…declined in 2019, increased in 2020 and declined in 2021…” “Accordingly, the uncertainty associated with…the forecast biomass is quite large.”

So the DFO Science Response forecasts that as few as 41,000 tonnes of herring could return to spawn in 2022, or as much as 137,000 tonnes could return.

Now if the HIAB wants to harvest conservatively they might say, we should only take 10 per cent of 41,000 tonnes because that is the conservative estimate of the returning biomass. But no, they want a guarantee of 10 per cent of the average of the estimate return, and they will take that 7,800 tonnes before the returning herring are counted. And you cannot tell me that a forecast spawning return of between 41,000 tonnes and 137,000 tonnes is the sign of a sustainable fishery. If you feel lucky and take 10 per cent of 137,000 tonnes you would be very unlucky if only 41,000 tonnes returned. The herring population would be hammered, as it has been on the entire outer coast of .B.C and great wide sections of the Strait of Georgia, including my homeport of Victoria. That is not sustainable, and that is well proven.

I hate to sound negative negative negative, no seining herring, but they have destroyed our herring populations. As for positive solutions, what if DFO bought the seine fleet quota for a buck a pound, which is the market price and paid the fleet not to fish. Win-win-win. The fishers get paid money for nothing and our salmon get bigger tastier and more profitable, and we have more marine mammals for tourism. Furthermore, herring quota could be available for local fishers to sell herring off the dock in Comox. Herring spawn on kelp could be promoted; this product is worth more than a dollar a pound.

Other solutions are promoted by the good-thinking Conservancy Hornby Island. And among all the brickbats I’ve thrown at the seine herring fishery, let me pass out one great big bouquet to our Minister of Fisheries, Joyce Murray from Vancouver. She has taken the difficult decision to halve this years herring total allowable catch from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. Well done, Minister Murray. She took this difficult decision to protect our endangered chinook salmon, more herring will feed more salmon Keep up the good work Minister Murray, but the devil is in the details; make sure the Food and Bait fishery is reduced as well.

Jim Shortreed,