Goodbye herring, goodbye salmon, goodbye dolphins.
With the Department of Fisheries (DFO) increasing the winter food and bait fishing on herring populations, Howe Sound can wave goodbye to the resurgence of marine life it has seen in recent years, warns Jonn Matsen, co-ordinator of the Howe Sound Herring Recovery Project.
Matsen and the Squamish Streamkeepers have been trying revitalize the local herring population since the discovery of dead herring eggs on the Squamish Terminal’s creosote pilings in 2006. Chemicals in creosote kill herring eggs, so volunteers are wrapping the pilings with protective material to ensure their survival.
Their work has proved fruitful. Early this year, an estimated 600 tonnes of herring returned to Squamish to spawn. It’s a good start, Matsen said, but nowhere near the 2,000 tonnes of the silver-coloured fish that used to breed on Squamish’s shoreline in the 1960s.
“[Fisheries] are saying all runs are in good shape, but that’s simply not true,” Matsen said.
From February until the end of April, DFO officials are allowing fishing boats to haul up to 6,000 tonnes of herring out of southwestern B.C. waters, approximately 5,700 more tonnes than last year.
DFO categorizes the herring population as migratory, overlooking resident populations — such as Howe Sound’s school — that communities have been fighting to rehabilitate, Matsen said. Only one of the Strait of Georgia’s resident schools is in good shape, he said, and it’s around Denman Island. Matsen is concerned resident populations could be wiped out in the 6,000-tonne take.
“The Squamish run could easily get mixed up,” he said. “They are going to do a massacre out in the Strait.”
The new herring food and bait fisheries number is a re-allocation rather than an increase, said Lisa Mijacika, DFO’s pelagics coordinator. In the 1980s and ’90s the sale of herring roe was the fish’s primary commercial use. With the Japanese yen down and demographic in the country changing, the demand for herring roe isn’t as great as it once was. The commercial fisheries want to try and develop more of a food-based market for the fish, Mijacika said.
This year 23,000 tonnes of herring has been allocated for commercial purposes. Of that, 11,500 tonnes will come from the roe fishery — down 2,000 tonnes from last year — and 6,000 tonnes will come from food and bait fisheries, Mijacika said, noting the total sum is still below the allotment.
“From a management point of view we are staying well below that maximum yield that science has recommended to us,” she said.
DFO officials estimate 150,000 tonnes of herring make up the Strait of Georgia stock. So far 1,400 tonnes have been caught, Mijacika said.
“The resident stocks that people are concerned about are generally the smaller fish, which they are not trying to catch,” she added.
In old literature, local or resident herring stocks are referred to as “stay behinds” and “homesteaders,” said Jake Schweigert, DFO herring biologist at Nanaimo’s Pacific Biological Station.
“There is a thought that some of these fish may not have enough energy to migrate out to the West Coast,” he said.
It’s difficult to say whether resident schools exist or not, Schweigert continued. The herring in Howe Sound may be a more local population, as it’s his understanding that the runs spawns at a different time than the migratory group. This would allow for genetic differences because the school is not interbreeding, Schweigert said.
That also boosts their rate of survival, as they likely won’t be with the migratory group during the fishing-season opening, he noted.
Every year, DFO officials estimate the herring population size by sending a team of divers into the water to survey herring egg beds. They estimate the density, width and length and then estimate the number of female herring needed to produce those eggs. That number is doubled to give scientists the minimum population size. Fishers is allowed to harvest 20 per cent of that quota.
“Twenty per cent is a recommended maximum, but in the last few years we haven’t fished the 20 per cent,” Schweigert said.