Fisheries minister ignores SARA, caves to industry

By Briony Penn, December 2011

A massive increase in the winter herring fishery threatens recovering stocks and resident orca.

In what many are calling a dangerous and reckless move, the Honourable James Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, has just opened a massively scaled-up winter herring fishery in the Salish Sea that could knock back all the recent small recoveries of local resident herring populations from Saanich Inlet and the Gorge to Ganges Harbour and Howe Sound. 

Herring are a keystone species, critical to hundreds of species including chinook and coho salmon and the endangered resident orca protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA)—not to mention a cultural keystone species for local First Nations. The recklessness of the government’s decision is magnified by the fact that the minister has already been found guilty of failing to protect the food source of the endangered orca under Justice James Russell’s historic ruling (see Focus March, 2011). The courts found it was unlawful for the Minister to exercise discretionary powers regarding the protection of critical habitat under SARA, and to exclude other elements of the definition of “critical habitat” from the scope of the Protection Order. “Critical habitat” had been defined by the minister’s own scientists as not only the geographical location, but their acoustic environment and availability of their food which, again according to the minister’s own scientists, is dependent on herring. 

Where there are herring, there are chinook, and where there are chinook, there are orca. Herring constitute over 61 percent of a chinook salmon’s food. Chinook are the primary seasonal prey of resident orcas. It is a straightforward food chain, in fact it doesn’t get any simpler. Any fisherman can confirm this one. 

So why would the minister ignore his legal obligations and decide to take a fishery of 238 tonnes and increase it to an unprecedented 6000 tonnes? Despite his precarious position legally (he is currently appealing Justice Russell’s ruling), despite the data that the case has uncovered about these animals and their needs, and despite the recent announcement that the Salish Sea National Marine Conservation Area is moving ahead, the minister has still signed off on a controversial 30-fold increase in a winter fishery. And that increase could wipe out the just-recovering resident stocks and thereby push the orcas and the rest of the ecosystem to the brink.

To understand the rationale for this fishery, you just need to go to page 95 of DFO’s recently released herring fisheries plan where it states very simply that the reason for this fishery is because industry asked for it: “As a result of increased interest in this fishery and development of global markets, and as recommended by the Herring Industry Advisory Board (HIAB), the allocation to this fishery will be 6,000 tonnes (100 licences) for the Strait of Georgia area for the 2011/2012 season.”

The HIAB is an industry-dominated board who probably weren’t asked to consult with the scientific community on how this might impact the orca.

A refusal to recognize the important differences between resident and migratory herring stocks lies beneath this sad state of herring management. First Nations have been arguing for recognition of local versus migratory populations since the 1930s, when the resident populations first started flickering out. A single DFO paper back in 1990, assessing abundance of resident populations, concludes that they were at very low levels. 

Yet currently, DFO has no stock assessment process for the resident stocks, only migratory stocks, so all Salish Sea herring are officially considered part of one “metastock” by DFO. The resident populations, once used for sport fishing live bait, remain so depleted that the “bait ponds” are today unable to operate. The winter fishery is traditionally when this bait fishery was carried out—between November and February, and is opened throughout the Strait of Georgia region with some small exceptions. For years it has never been more than a couple of hundred tonnes, mostly because there has been neither demand nor supply. We don’t have a sport fishery anymore. The roe herring fishery on the other hand (dominated by Jimmy Pattison’s Canfisco), that starts in March, is opened when and where the last large migratory stock still spawns between Hornby and Qualicum Beach. This is the population that DFO will say is at “historic levels” and “still healthy.” But because DFO’s researchers have never unravelled the complex biology of the migratory and resident herring stocks (even though there are differences in timing and characteristics of spawn), they are operating on flawed information. 

Professor Tony Pitcher, founding Director of the Fisheries Centre at UBC, is internationally recognized for his work on restoration of marine ecosystems and stocks around the world. He states that “both Atlantic and Pacific herring, life history theory, genetic evidence and historical records support the existence of local resident stocks of herring alongside larger, highly migratory stocks. In the Strait of Georgia, resident stocks were decimated by overfishing, especially by the reduction fishery in the 1960s; reports suggest that a few of these stocks have begun to recover. Fishing for roe on the spawning grounds of the highly migratory herring should not affect these smaller resident stocks, but fishing when the herring stocks are mixed outside the spawning season could easily prejudice these recoveries. Stock assessment based only on the large migratory stock will not be sufficient to allow for this: at the very least, the numerical procedures would need to be adjusted to allow for a reasonable range of assumptions about the mixed stock details. Therefore, fishing Strait of Georgia herring during the winter should be treated with extreme caution.”

There has been no caution; on the contrary, only a reckless disregard. The implications are huge to those of us from the Gorge to Ganges and from Boundary Bay to Squamish. The return of the herring after decades has been a huge cause for celebration. Spawns bring back salmon, birds and marine mammals—all important for tourism and local economies, as is the spawn on kelp fishery for First Nations. Even a 200-tonne fishery can wipe out a small recovering population. Various groups, First Nations, and scientists like Pitcher have called for the fisheries minister to exercise caution. Many advocates are asking for a full moratorium on the whole fishery until stocks recover in the Salish Sea. Environmental groups who successfully challenged the minister on his failure to protect the food of orca might well be pointing to this decision as continuing evidence that he has absolutely no interest in conserving the health of this coast.

Naturalist and writer Briony Penn PhD lives in Fulford Harbour, Salt Spring Island, where the last big herring spawn was 1983. Since the herring disappeared, so have many other wild creatures. She is author of "A Year on the Wild Side" and "The Kids Book of Geography".