As the herring season starts to approach, I thought that it would be interesting to look back to a time when the herring return was not only a cause for excitement in Howe Sound, but also a time of collective work for the village folk of Sta7mes.
In 1860, John Keast Lord (naturalist to the British North American Boundary Commission) documented events he experienced along the coast. The following excerpts are taken from his written account of the first nation’s herring fishery in the southern Salish Sea.
“There are three distinct herring arrivals, one beginning in February and March; (these fish are small and somewhat lean). The second arrives about the beginning of April; (in high condition, and full of spawn). The third in June and July, and extending through the summer, small shoals occasionally make their appearance, but never as fine as the April fish.
“The indigenous name along the coast for the fish is ‘Stole,’ with an average length of 10 inches. They had various plans for catching herrings. Immense numbers are taken with small hand nets, literally dipping them out of the water into the canoes; they also employ the ‘rake,’ a monster comb, a piece of pinewood from six to eight feet long, into which are driven teeth made of bone about four inches long, and an inch apart. They sweep their toothed sickles through the shoals, and steadily the canoes fill with their harvest of ‘living silver.’ When they have heaped as much as the frail craft will safely carry, they paddle ashore, drag the boats up on the shelving beach, overturn them as the quickest way of discharging the cargo, relaunch, and go back to rake up another load until the moon has set behind the mountain-peaks.
“Not all the herring taken are eaten. Much of the catch is dried to preserve them, but also a great number of fish are used to extract oil. The fish are piled up in heaps until partially decomposed, boiled in large square boxes, placing hot stones in the mix to steam the oil to the surface. The oil is then stored away in the hollow stalks of sea wrack. Cut into lengths of about three feet, these hollow stalks, with the bulb at the end, are collected and kept wet until required for use. Some of these natural ready-made bottles hold up to three pints of oil.
“When the tide is well out, and the flats clear of water, immense quantities of fir-braches are stuck in and around the mud. On these branches the herring-spawn gets entangled; when covered with spawn the branches are carried to the lodges, and the fish-eggs dried in the sun. Thus dried, and brushed into baskets, it is in appearance very much like coarse brown sand; it is then stored away, and when eaten mixed with fish-oil is esteemed as the very perfection of feeding.”
Since that was written, the herring have been overfished and their spawning habitat altered through dredging, infilling, and deadly creosote structures installed on the foreshore. The creosote is extremely toxic to the herring spawn, resulting in very high egg mortality.
In 1963, one of the largest local herring kills happened in Squamish after the Mamquam Blind Channel was altered by dredging to accommodate the small boat harbour and a new sawmill. From 1965 to 1970 up to 40 tons of mercury escaped into the surrounding oceanfront areas from Hooker chemicals, located on the current Nexen lands on the Squamish oceanfront. In the early 1970s, one of the biggest herring habitat alterations occurred when the area around the Squamish River was dredged to accommodate the installation of a new deep sea port (complete with creosote pilings).
All of these impacted the local herring, which were all but wiped out.
Despite the pressures of continued human activity, the local herring have started to show their fishy faces in our waters again, though a mere shadow of their former numbers. The herring continue to be threatened through habitat loss and an ever-increasing disconnect between humans and the natural world in which they live.
“Be better than your past” — we have a long way to go.
Live life, eat, and be eaten.