For the past few years, ecologyst has sent a film crew to document the last remaining herring fishery in the Salish Sea. In The Silver in the Sea—a new short film by Cam MacArthur, Deirdre Leowinata of Pacific Wild, and Locky MacLean—we bear witness to the severe mismanagement of this foundational species.
In the Strait of Georgia, nested between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island, a herring fishery well over a century old happens every March. It almost always occurs in and around Denman and Hornby islands off the coast of the Comox Valley. The waterways of Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel host the remainder of the largest Pacific herring spawning populations in the Salish Sea, the collective name for the Strait of Georgia, Washington State’s Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
This small piece of the sea is the richest spawning ground for Pacific herring between California and Alaska. When speaking about the health of herring—and the ecosystem that relies on this big little fish—Hornby Island is ground zero.
Herring play a critical role as forage fish on the North Pacific coast. Without herring, the health of Pacific salmon and other species—like sea lions, eagles and orca whales—suffers. We all wish to save the orca and salmon, but it’s the herring that ultimately keep these keystone species alive. The herring spawn feeds a vast array of species, with protein moving up the ladder as nature intends. You may not eat herring, but every other animal in Cascadia’s marine environment does, directly or indirectly. The entire coast depends on this beautiful, oily, silver fish.
Fishers rely on herring too—for a paycheque—but the fishers are not the problem. The management of the fishery is. Why does the Department of Fisheries and Oceans allow a 20% catch of the remaining herring every year, despite a regularly shrinking return of herring over time? Herring prices are the lowest they’ve been in decades, providing only small gains for a small group. It’s madness to continue at the same pace.
So how can we help the fishing fleets and Salish Sea ecosystem simultaneously?
The answer may be easier than we may believe. Almost two years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced $167.4 million to “support the recovery of three key whale species in Canada, particularly B.C.’s southern resident killer whale population.” If the government earmarked some of these funds for fishers to keep their nets out of the water, the herring would remain where they belong—swimming freely, and occasionally, into the bellies of B.C.’s most cherished species.
Let the herring go fallow and let fishers use the recovery fund to pivot in their careers. After all, this industry will not be around much longer if we continue in the same unsustainable direction. Should we do it now, or when the herring are gone forever?
Want to help? 20% from the purchase of every ecologyst Big Little Fish t-shirt goes to Conservancy Hornby Island, to support a suspension of the Georgia Strait herring fishery for a healthy Salish Sea. Also be sure to sign the petition to halt the fishing of this #Biglittlefish