New Hope for Herring

Markus Thompson dives with tanks to survey herring spawn.

Over the past two years the herring fishery on the central coast has been a source of controversy. Disagreements between our Nations and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) have led to peaceful but persistent conflicts. On the water, commercial seiners have been surrounded by our boats and asked to leave our territories. On land, DFO offices have been occupied to protest the fishery. All these actions have aimed to safeguard the herring from over-exploitation while protecting our way of life and our indigenous rights.

Now for the first time in two years, there is some optimism for the future of central coast herring. Successful negotiations, pro-active planning and collaborative science in Heiltsuk and Kitasoo/Xai’xais territories are giving our Nations hope for these fish, the ecosystems they support and our people.

Heiltsuk win a victory for all CCIRA Nations

After major protests over the herring fishery in 2015, the Heiltsuk began extensive talks with DFO that led to the creation of a joint management plan for herring in their territory. The Heiltsuk are hopeful that this one-year plan may signify a new chapter in their relations with DFO.

Now for the first time in two years, there is some optimism for the future of central coast herring.

In a press release Heiltsuk’s Chief Councillor, Marilyn Slett, said the “development of this plan has set the stage for future co-management of resources with the federal government.” Marilyn applauded the DFO for “establishing the foundation for a nation-to-nation relationship between DFO and the Heiltsuk.”

Thousands of herring spawn, underwater
Herring spawn. Photo by Markus Thompson.

With the plan in place things looked much different on the water this spring. There were no protests, and spawning areas like Spiller Channel, that are culturally and ecologically important, were closed to sac roe fisheries. These closures gave local stocks a chance to rebuild while providing spawn on kelp (SOK) and food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fishing opportunities for the Heiltsuk.

This is an achievement that benefits all central coast Nations. As we seek to protect our territories it moves the needle in a positive direction, creating a better platform for negotiation with other governments.

Planning for herring’s future in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory

Kitasu Bay is a critical SOK and FSC fishing area for the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation. Unfortunately, over the past two years it has been a major struggle to keep it safe from non-indigenous fisheries. Nonetheless, the DFO did agree to keep this important area closed to a seine fishery in 2016. “This is a step in the right direction,” says Kitasoo/Xai’xais Chief Councillor Doug Neasloss. But he also notes that the DFO’s decision making process was not as transparent as his Nation would have liked. “We hope the DFO will engage with us more fully on this issue in the future. Our Nation wants to be meaningfully involved in the management of the resources in our territories through joint decision making.”

Alejandro Frid, Ernie Mason and Sandy Hankewick preparing herring eggs for an experiment in Kitasu Bay. Photo by Markus Thompson.
Alejandro Frid, Ernie Mason and Sandy Hankewick preparing herring eggs for an experiment in Kitasu Bay. Photo by Markus Thompson.

To support a future co-management agreement with DFO, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais are currently working on a herring management plan specific to their territory. The Nation has deliberately chosen to draft their management plan before engaging with the DFO.

“We’re going work with them to protect stocks and respect different user groups,” says Doug, “but we’re going to write our own management plan first. We think this is the best way for us to ensure that our values and knowledge are incorporated into herring management decisions within our territory.”

Nations working together on herring science

In the past five years the Heiltsuk have witnessed herring spawning at greater depths than normal. People are concerned about this unusual behaviour, what may be causing it and the impact it may be having on herring populations. Together, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Heiltsuk Nations are supporting research projects to learn more about central coast herring populations, including this particular phenomenon.

Under the supervision of professor Anne Solomon at Simon Fraser University, Masters student Markus Thompson is investigating instances of deep herring spawn on the central coast.

“Typically herring spawn from the intertidal zone to depths of about 10 meters,” says Markus. “But,” he continues, “people have been witnessing herring spawning on kelp and anchor lines as deep as 30 to 40 meters.” This, he says, has never been seen before. “I was amazed by what we saw when we dove to examine the spawn. At one place in Spiller Channel it looked like snow covering the rocks. It went from the intertidal zone all the way down to 40 meters for a kilometer along the shore.”

Markus is investigating if changes in fishing practices, increased noise from boats or rising water temperatures from climate change may be influencing herring spawning behavior. “We’re also looking at the potential impact of predators and tying to gage what impact deep spawning may have on the survival of eggs.” His findings will enhance our understanding of herring spawning behaviour and may inform new management actions to help protect the fish from human-caused environmental changes.

Meanwhile work continues with other collaborators at the university of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University who are trying to unravel if there are distinct populations of herring on the central coast that warrant individual management plans. Currently, the DFO lumps all central coast herring together for their population estimates. There is concern that this could inflate their estimates of commercially viable herring and lead to over fishing.

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