The waters around Denman and Hornby Islands were full of fishing boats during the annual roe herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia. Shannon Ford took this photo of her neighbours fishing on Denman Island, with commercial fishing boats working in the background. Photo courtesy of Shannon Ford

The waters around Denman and Hornby Islands were full of fishing boats during the annual roe herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia. Shannon Ford took this photo of her neighbours fishing on Denman Island, with commercial fishing boats working in the background. Photo courtesy of Shannon Ford

BIG READ: The two sides of the Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery

The case for the Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery

Comox fisherman, Quincy Sample, was laying on the deck of his boat under the warm March sun, waiting for the waves to die down when reached by phone. The fishery opened for gill nets on March 15 in the Strait of Georgia, and Sample was hoping for the right conditions to get his net in the water.

Sample has worked on the ocean for the majority of his life. Growing up on the Sunshine Coast, he started fishing when he was 16, and now, 30 years later, fishing is what supports his family of five.

“It’s not a predictable industry,” he said from his boat, a 30-foot-long aluminum herring skip.

The weather is something that fishermen have to deal with no matter the fishery, but with herring, timing is crucial. Not only does the water have to be relatively calm, the fishermen need to catch the female herring before they have spawned, but when their eggs are at maturity.

“We want to make sure we harvest them when it’s worth the most, otherwise you’re wasting a good resource,” said Sample.

Quincy Sample stands on one of his fishing boats with his 12 and 14-year-old sons. He has been fishing for around 30 years and says he loves bringing his family out onto the water with him. Photo courtesy of Quincy Sample

Used to opposition

Throughout his career, Sample has heard every argument against the fishery, but he remains confident the herring stock is being managed properly and sustainably.

He said fishermen are not trying to take every last fish out of the ocean – how could they continue to fish and support their families if that were their goal?

“[Herring are] at high numbers now and we’re taking our quota – only up to 20 per cent,” he said. “But when the fish don’t show up and there’s not enough fish, we don’t fish to that number. We don’t take more.”

According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the herring stocks are at “historically high” levels based on their data that dates back to 1951.

“Do I think that we’re going to over-fish the area to the point where they’re not going to come back? Not one bit,” continued Sample.

The herring fishery takes place at a time of year when no other fisheries are open in the Strait of Georgia, making it an important source of income for many in the industry, including fishermen and plant workers.

advocating for the final B.C. herring fishery to be shut down.

However, he also hopes to increase employment insurance weeks for industry workers who would be affected by a fishery shut down.

But for Sample, who needs the income to support his family, he calls this a “slap in the face.”

“If you’re making $800 to $1,000 a ton and your quota is 140 tons – you do the math, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “An extra EI cheque, that would be a slap in the face. That’s nothing. When he would talk about increasing that as a viable option to shutting the fishery down, it’s ridiculous.”

Throughout his 30 years participating in the fishery, Sample said he has probably invested around $250,000 just to get out on the water to work.

There’s the cost of the boat, netting, maintenance, but also the costs of the fishing licences themselves. This year, Sample bought four of his own licences and leases another 11. Each licence allows the catch of 9.6 tons of herring.

The total allowable catch for this year in the Strait of Georgia – 20 per cent of the total estimated population – is around 21,000 tons of herring, split evenly between seiners and gillnetters.

Fishery based on science

Though Greg Thomas has never been a roe herring fisherman himself, he has worked with the federal government and the industry in various capacities. Previously a fishery manager for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, he is now the executive director of the Herring Conservation and Research Society.

The HCRS is funded by members of the B.C. herring fishery, and contributes to researching, managing and assessing the herring on the west coast of B.C. The organization works with DFO to ensure the herring stock is well managed and harvested at sustainable levels. Annually, the industry contributes around $1.5 million to studying herring along the B.C. coast.

While much of the harvested roe is sold to Japanese markets, according to Thomas, the fishery brings in an average of $40 million to the B.C. economy annually.

According to Thomas, in the Strait of Georgia, the number of herring in the area has been fairly consistent for the last few years and is well above the limit reference point – the absolute minimum population level.

“The issue with herring populations is they’re highly dynamic, they go up and down rapidly over time and they live off of periodic strong recruitment, so new fish coming into the population,” said Thomas. “In the Strait of Georgia, the recruitments have been quite strong.”

In other areas where the fisheries have been shut down, Thomas says the dwindling numbers have been due to environmental conditions, not a defect of fishing.

Seiners work to catch their quota of herring in the Strait of Georgia. The maximum allowable catch is 20 per cent of the forecasted number of herring. Photo courtesy of Pacific Wild

Under the shadow of Mount Arrowsmith, 10 commercial fishing boats bob in the turquoise water near shore, hoping for a change in the weather to get their nets in the water.

It’s been four days since the roe herring fishery opened. Approximately 4,300 tons of herring have been caught by commercial fishing boats, so far a small percentage of the allowable 21,000 tons.

Ian McAllister’s boat, Habitat, drifts lazily on the unsettled water, anchored to a point nearby the mass of commercial fishing boats. McAllister, the executive director of Pacific Wild, had been out on the water since March 9, the first day the fishery opened, to take photos and video, and raise awareness about a fishery he doesn’t think should be open.

“This is the principal food supply of Chinook salmon, and we’ve got southern resident killer whales that are starving to death because they don’t have enough Chinook salmon,” said McAllister. “And yet, we are liquidating the very basis of their food supply.

“We really should be leaving this fish in the water, this fishery should not ever have been allowed to happen.”

Four out of the five roe herring fisheries in coastal B.C. have been closed, and the Strait of Georgia fishery is the only one that remains. McAllister attributes the other closures to overfishing.

Quota system

Before the fishery opens each year, DFO scientists estimate the number of herring that will return – this year they forecasted 130,000 tons – but throughout the fishery, the numbers are updated as they collect physical samples. On the fourth day of the fishery, the updated estimate was 95,000 tons. Though this number is well below the estimate, it is likely to increase as more fish come into the area to spawn, said Vanessa Minke-Martin, a marine science and communications specialist with Pacific Wild.

“If you know that the models tend to overestimate, you should be cautious and aim to catch fewer fish, because then you’re less likely to catch more than 20 per cent of the population, which has happened in the past,” she said.

In six of the last 13 years, the industry has taken above the quota of 20 per cent. However, the years that the industry has not reached its quota could be indicative of a larger issue as well.

Minke-Martin says along with the behaviours of the fish, the structure of the population has also changed.

“Something that we’re concerned about is, are the fishing fleet not catching their quota because the fish are too small? Maybe there aren’t enough older fish which actually have the amount of roe that they want to get,” she said. “The reason that the fishers aren’t getting enough fish is because the actual structure of the population has changed through time because we’ve always taken the biggest fish every year.”

Pressure on federal government

Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns has been putting pressure on Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, calling for a moratorium on the Strait of Georgia herring roe fishery, but his most recent request in the House of Commons was denied in February.

Johns has family working in the fishing industry and is concerned about the livelihood of fishers, but he says the health of such a vital species must also be taken into account.

“For me, our life is under the water, it’s not above the water, and I see the effects of overfishing and decline,” he said. “The fish get smaller, the schools get more broken up, the tonnage varies all the time, but it never gets better, it steadily goes downhill and it’s reaching that point where something needs to be done about it. Its time has passed.”

He adds the waters around Hornby and Denman islands are known for excellent marine life, and it is still quite healthy, but the stocks only seem to decline, they don’t get better.

“There’s more human pressure – whether it be from sport fishing, commercial fishing – and I just want to make sure those resources are here for the future for the next generations.”

This year, the DFO forecasted a return of 130,000 tons of herring and have approved the catch of 20 per cent of this number, split evenly between seiners and gillnetters. Photo courtesy of Pacific Wild

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