Skip to content

Concerns resurface as roe herring fishery approaches in Strait of Georgia

Advocates say species in decline, federal government not doing enough to protect it
An aerial view of the annual herring spawn in the Salish Sea. Black Press file photo

The roe herring fishery is approaching, which concerns those who say the Strait of Georgia herring have been fished out south of Nanaimo and over-fished north of Nanaimo.

Jim Shortreed, a Victoria-based herring enhancement volunteer, says that catch records from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) show that herring was fished out south of Nanaimo between 2017 and 2020. He also says research by DFO scientists has shown that a 20 per cent harvest rate has driven down stocks over the years.

“Last year there was no return south of Qualicum Bay,” Shortreed said. “Herring are the basic link between plankton and everything else. If more herring were available to feed the Salish Sea, we’d have more and fatter coho, halibut, chinook, killer whales, humpbacks, birds and sea lions, all excellent sources of tourist revenue.”

Sydney Dixon, a marine specialist at Pacific Wild, concurs that Pacific herring in the Strait of Georgia “is showing clear signs of decline.”

In 2022, Dixon said there were no herring spawning in the following areas, which are now open to fishing for the food and bait, and special use fisheries:

•Area 14, Qualicum Beach, French Creek, Parksville Bay and Northwest Bay. Continuing southeast on the East Coast of Vancouver Island;

•Area 17 North, Schooner Cove, Outer Nanoose Bay, Lantzville, Pipers Lagoon, Nanaimo, Outside of Newcastle, West Coast of Gabriola.

Dixon said this year’s estimated median spawning biomass is 10,330 tons less than 2022 — an estimated decline in herring biomass two years in a row within the Strait of Georgia.

The harvest rate has been provisionally set at 10 per cent for the 2023 sac roe fishery within the strait. However, Dixon said the range at which herring is expected to return (36,412 to 135,049 tons) is concerning. The Strait of Georgia quota has been set at a maximum of 6,625 tons. If only 36,412 tons return to spawn, 6,625 tons would represent an 18 per cent harvest rate, which DFO science has identified as over-harvest.

“This uncertainty may be a violation of the precautionary principle on which DFO is obligated to observe,” Dixon said.

DFO says conservation is the priority in its management of fisheries, and it continues to take a precautionary approach to this year’s harvest strategy to protect future stock health. It makes yearly management decisions about the size and extent of permitted herring fisheries on an annual basis. Decisions are based on the best available science, and the knowledge and input of First Nations, commercial harvesters and others, gathered through consultation and engagement efforts.

“The stock in the Strait of Georgia is not considered overfished, nor is overfishing considered to be occurring,” DFO said in a statement, noting the area has the largest biomass of all major stock assessment areas, comprising about 50 per cent of coastwide herring biomass. “Herring biomass trends in the Strait of Georgia area naturally fluctuate in response to changes in predation mortality, survival and recruitment, and estimated spawning biomass trends are considered to be relatively stable.

Through a rigorous Management Strategy Evaluation (MSE) process, DFO says it identifies harvest options predicted to meet conservation objectives over the long-term with a high probability. New stock assessment advice is provided annually that updates current stock status. As such, fishing plans are adjusted each year in response to changes in stock status. In the Strait of Georgia area, a harvest rate of 10 per cent was chosen for 2021-22, and has been proposed for the 2022-23 season. The latest MSE assessment estimates harvest rates up to 15 per cent will achieve long-term conservation objectives with a high degree of certainty.

•DFO added that several First Nations raised concerns with recent levels of herring spawn and potential impacts on First Nations food, social, and ceremonial (FSC) opportunities in the areas south of Dodd Narrows.

DFO responded to these concerns by implementing management measures, including a number of commercial fisheries closures and catch limits, beginning in 2016/2017. Since 2017/2018, annual closures have been implemented in the same areas.

“DFO remains committed to upholding First Nations’ right to FSC and these management measures have been put in place to support the priority of FSC harvest.”

The department continues to see spawning activity south of Dodd Narrows. Spawns were observed in the 2022 season at Round Island, and in Areas 19 and 28, and recorded in Esquimalt Harbour and Esquimalt Lagoon, which were last observed in 1993 and 1950, respectively. In Qualicum Bay, herring spawn was observed in the area in early March 2022.

“Herring spawn distribution can change significantly from one year to the next, with spawn density higher in some areas than others,” the statement said. “DFO is committed to managing Pacific herring fisheries to ensure that there are enough herring to spawn and sustain the stock into the future, and support its role in the ecosystem.”

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter