Conservancy Hornby Island is working to have a moratorium on the upcoming herring fishery. Photo, Simon Ager

Conservancy Hornby Island is working to have a moratorium on the upcoming herring fishery. Photo, Simon Ager

Island lobby group pushing for roe herring moratorium

DFO is considering feedback before issuing its final plan for season

The public comment period has passed for the upcoming herring fishery, but Conservancy Hornby Island still wants Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to impose a moratorium.

The roe herring fishery typically takes place in Baynes Sound each year around late February or early March for a short period of time.

Industry advocates have pointed to a healthier than projected population last year, the need for economic opportunities in the fisheries and a biomass threshold that would stop the fishery if the visiting herring population is too small.

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Conservationists though question the efficacy of measures such as the threshold to protect what is considered the last significant population in the north Pacific. Conservancy Hornby Island’s Locky MacLean, who grew up on Hornby and remembers much larger populations of the fish, says the fishery happens in a frenzy in the area for a day, maybe two, which brings into question whether DFO would have an opportunity to shut down the fishery in the event the returning herring population is too small.

“The bulk of it is over in, like, 24 hours,” he said.

A DFO spokesperson says the department conducts annual scientific surveys for each of the five major Pacific herring stock areas, and along with biological sampling, these inform a yearly scientific stock assessment with up-to-date advice. Based on stock assessment, fishing plans can be adjusted in response to changes.

“The department’s management approach is designed to respond to a varying abundance of herring by adjusting fishing opportunities accordingly to protect the stock based on the pre-season forecast of abundance,” the DFO spokesperson said.

Early on in the fishery, MacLean responds, the seiners scoop up schools of the fish easily, with gillnetters catching later on while the fish are trying to get to eelgrass to breed.

MacLean says the methods, particularly the seiners, are geared more toward large-scale industrial fishing better suited to the open ocean rather than in the last healthy corners of the Salish Sea.

“That gear doesn’t belong in an inland body of water,” he said, likening it to the collapse of the cod fishery in Atlantic Canada. “What we’re seeing here is the very same thing.”

The 20 per cent harvest rate has been basically the same for decades, he adds, to which industry advocates point to a healthier than expected run last year. Conservancy Hornby Island, however, says DFO’s management plan is based on widely differing estimates on the size of the population for 2021. The plan forecasts a median spawning biomass of 81,373 tons (90,250 metric tonnes) in the Strait of Georgia, up from the pre-fishery projection for 2020, though it includes a projected range of 44,500 tons at the low end to 155,600 tons at the high end.

“There’s a huge margin there,” MacLean said. “They’re allowing them to fish based on that.”

Conservancy Hornby Island has raised more than 150,000 signatures of support for a moratorium. The group is hopeful there is still time and opportunity for the public to influence DFO to bring in a moratorium to let the herring population rebuild. This not only helps the herring stocks that support other important life in the local ecosystem such as salmon and orcas, the group says, but it will ultimately help the fishery itself revitalize.

Conservancy Hornby Island is also getting ready for its annual HerringFest this year, which will be held virtually from March 4-6.

The comment period for the plan closed on Jan. 20, and DFO says it is now considering all feedback received, and it expects to release a final plan in the coming weeks, which would be approved prior to the roe herring fishery.

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