Roe Herring Trade Leaves Little for Whales, Fish, Birds

VANCOUVER, British Columbia, Canada, March 13, 2002 (ENS) - Every spring the waters of coastal British Columbia come alive with silvery flashes of herring. They lay their eggs, or roe, on ribbons of kelp, a delicacy for sushi lovers, who also enjoy the roe straight from the belly of the female herring.

The roe herring fishery is big business in British Columbia, but not nearly as big as it once was. The fishery takes place as the the herring gather to spawn which occurs in late February to early March in southern B.C., and mid-March to mid-April in the northern part of the province.

Less than 30 years ago, large herring spawns occurred continuously for many weeks in many more areas of the Georgia Strait than they do today, allowing salmon, whales, herons, gulls and other sea birds to eat their fill and leave plenty for the fishermen.


March in the Georgia Strait. The herring fleet tries to make its quota, the gulls wait for their chance. (Photo courtesy The Wind Walker)
This year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has set what the agency considers a small allowable catch limit because the herring runs are way down as they have been for years.

"Herring catch quotas are conservatively set based on a fixed harvest rate of 20 percent or less," the agency said January 4 in its announcement of herring fisheries regulations for this year.

Critics are calling for a moratorium on commercial herring fishing, at least in the Strait of Georgia, an inshore body of water that provides critical rearing habitat for salmon. They maintain that herring are more valuable in the water, feeding the salmon, than they are being killed so their eggs can go to sushi bars of Japan.

Fisheries critic Dave Ellis says the catch of 8,953 tons allowed March 7 and 8 is way too much even though it was taken in the most abundant herring area around Hornby Island and Denman Island in the center of the Georgia Strait.

Calling the quota "a very large tonnage of herring," Ellis says killer whales, marbled murrelets, and chinook and coho salmon, are endangered or threatened species that are very heavily affected by the loss of this much herring at the most critical time in their breeding cycle.


Herring roe (Photo courtesy Fisheries and Oceans Canada)
"Many other presently low-abundance species are affected by the sudden removal of such a large biomass of herring. Many species that are clearly headed for the endangered list, such as great blue heron, are also affected," Ellis said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada says herring are abundant enough this year to allow the roe herring fishery, with many First Nations commercial fishermen participating. "Small harvestable surpluses are available in the Queen Charlotte Islands and the west coast of Vancouver Island, areas that were closed to commercial roe herring in 2001 due to low abundance levels," the agency said.

The total allowable herring catch for 2002 has been set at 26,500 tons coastwide for commercial harvesters. This amount is available for 252 boats holding seine licenses and 1,257 licensed gillnet fishing boats.

The roe herring fishery will include an on-grounds monitoring and 100 percent dockside monitoring of all commercial landings," the fisheries agency said. Government fisheries biologists believe their program is conservative enough to allow the herring populations to rebuild.

In Washington State, a whole ecosystem policy has now been adopted, that in effect allocates the herring not to humans, but to the dependent species. Such a policy is now under consideration in Canada, although it lacks vocal public support at this time, except for Ellis.


Herring roe on kelp packaged for the Japanese tourist gift market (Photo courtesy JTB Gift)
The government says that working to develop precautionary harvest strategies recognizes the critical importance of herring spawn on kelp fisheries to the financial well being of many coastal aboriginal communities. "This precautionary approach is consistent with advice received from First Nations and the herring fishing industry," the agency said.

Ellis warns that rebuilding programs for such species as ling cod, and many rockfish species, and coho and chinook salmon, and killer whales, have little credibility unless they include a comprehensive rebuilding program for the many depleted herring spawning sites in the Georgia Strait.

Ellis says a study is needed to assess the loss of potential recreational revenues from activities such as bird watching due to the present level of exploitation of the roe herring fishery. The sight of eagles feasting on herring would draw many birders to the Georgia Strait, he believes.

"Included in the equation must be the potential economic value to the Province of re-built bird watching, sporting fishing and whale watching industries, all of which are now clearly suffering heavy economic losses due to the continuance of large-scale roe herring fishing in the Strait," Ellis says.

"Also needed is provision in such an analysis for the improved quality of life of local citizens, who will enjoy higher local abundances of mammals, birds, and fishes," he says.