While the herring spawn is one of the most spectacular marine events on the Pacific coast, the importance of this foundation species as an ecosystem building block is often overlooked. Salmon are rightly celebrated as the great iconic fish of the Pacific, yet few people realize just how essential herring are to the Great Bear Rainforest. Because of the sheer range of creatures that feed on herring, this fish plays a vital role in supporting the Great Bear’s rich biodiversity. They have always played an important role in the culture and economy of coastal communities as well. In fact, new archaeological research suggests that herring have been in abundance and able to sustain societal-ecological systems on the coast for the past 10,000 years, up until this last century’s industrial fishing pressures.
The Spawn: Pacific herring is a silvery fish widely considered to be a keystone species because of its huge productivity and wide interactions with a range of predators and prey. Preferring to spawn in sheltered bays and inlets, the adult herring begin making their way from the open ocean to the spawning grounds in the late winter. When the time comes to spawn, a single female may lay as many as 20,000 eggs and an entire school may spawn in just two hours, producing a staggering egg density of 6 million eggs per square metre. The resultant pulse of biomass attracts a huge array of predators including sea lions, humpback whales, wolves, black bears and a host of bird species.
First Nations Harvesting: First Nations have a long history of sustainably harvesting herring roe for trade and consumption using a method that involves collecting eggs that have been deposited on kelp or hemlock branches. Such a method allows the spawning herring to live on and spawn again or be eaten by predators, therefore maintaining the herring’s critical ecosystem function.
Commercial Fishing Pressures: The commercial harvest of herring for roe has been historically very lucrative, but also very controversial. Schools of herring are seined or gillnetted, and the eggs from females are harvested for export as roe to Japan – this represents just 12 percent of the total catch. The remaining 88 percent is rendered into fish fertilizer or feed, in a wasteful exploitative fishery that has a huge impact on this ecosystem-critical fish. We know that herring on the Pacific coast are 50 percent smaller than those found 40 years ago, and are currently in low abundance coast-wide. Yet in 2014 Fisheries and Oceans Canada opened the commercial fishery on the central coast for the first time in seven years, putting the fragile stocks at even more risk.
ADVOCACY AND ACTIONLearn more about advocacy efforts to protect Pacific herring here