In a development that has caused widespread alarm among conservationists and environmentalists, the Honourable James Ashfield, the current Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, has initiated a substantial upscaling of the winter herring fishery in the Salish Sea. This potentially perilous decision could effectively undo the recent minor improvements in the populations of local resident herring across various regions, including but not limited to the Saanich Inlet, the Gorge, Ganges Harbour, and Howe Sound.
Herring: The Critical Keystone Species of the Marine Ecosystem
Herring served as a keystone species, their presence and health being fundamental to the survival and prosperity of hundreds of species. Among the myriad of species they support, chinook and coho salmon, along with the endangered resident orca, stand out due to their direct dependence on herring. Moreover, herring also function as a cultural keystone species for the local First Nations, making their survival an issue of cultural preservation as well as ecological stability.
The Simple Yet Crucial Herring Food Chain
The food chain involving herring is incredibly straightforward, making it all the more important to understand and protect. Wherever there are herring, chinook salmon are likely found, and where chinook exist, so do orca. Herring constitute a staggering 61% of a chinook salmon’s diet. Moreover, chinook salmon are the primary seasonal prey of the resident orcas. Any imbalance in the herring population, therefore, threatens to disrupt the entire marine food web and create a ripple effect through the ecosystem.
An Unwarranted and Detrimental Increase in Fishery
Understanding the Motivation Behind the Rapid Fishery Expansion
The Importance of Recognizing the Differences Between Herring Stocks
An integral issue often overlooked is the essential differences between resident and migratory herring stocks. While resident populations have been dwindling for decades, the DFO does not independently assess these stocks. Instead, all herring in the Salish Sea are treated as part of one large “metastock.” This approach leads to flawed management and inaccurate stock assessments, as it fails to take into account the complex biology and distinct characteristics of resident and migratory herring populations.
The Essential Precaution in Winter Herring Fishing
The renowned Professor Tony Pitcher, internationally recognized for his work on restoring marine ecosystems and stocks worldwide, underscores the need for extreme care when fishing herring in the Strait of Georgia during the winter. Disregarding such caution can inadvertently hinder the recovery of already struggling herring populations.
A Call to Action for the Fisheries Minister
Amid this environmental concern, various environmental advocates, First Nations groups, and scientists like Professor Pitcher have implored the Fisheries Minister to exercise restraint. There is a growing demand for a complete halt on the herring fishery until the herring stocks in the Salish Sea have had a chance to fully recover. However, the continuation of the fishery serves as ongoing evidence of a concerning lack of interest in conserving the health and balance of these coastal ecosystems.
Briony Penn, a celebrated naturalist and writer based in Fulford Harbour, Salt Spring Island, has noticed a significant decrease in wildlife since the last substantial herring spawned in 1983. She is the author of several publications, including “A Year on the Wild Side” and “The Kids Book of Geography,” and continues to advocate for the protection of marine ecosystems.