California sea lions have returned to the Salish Sea for the herring buffet. Some critics say that reducing the number of pinnipeds that feed on herring will help boost numbers more than slashing the commercial catch.
Abby Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

By Abby Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

For decades, the Salish Sea’s herring nearly disappeared, starving local salmon, whales and other species. The run miraculously came back in 2014. 

Since then, Ottawa has allowed commercial boats to harvest 20 per cent of the herring run – in spite of lobbying by First Nations and environmental groups. 

For 2022, DFO slashed that number in half to 10 per cent of the run – or 3,761 herring per
qathet resident.

Here, some local experts wonder if other measures would be more effective at preserving this crucial species.The commercial catch of Pacific herring in the Salish Sea this year was cut in half, to 7,850 tonnes, a 10 per cent harvest rate. Normally, the government allows a 20 per cent harvest rate in the Salish Sea.

Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Joyce Murray, said in a media release that her decision was made to protect and regenerate the Salish Sea’s herring population because herring are crucial for the ecosystem, sea life, and are a traditional First Nation food. 

Tla’amin hatchery manager Lee George says that a better approach needs to be taken.

“We need to be more conservative with the commercial fishery. Let’s close it completely until our fisheries minister comes up with a solution. BC needs food security measures put into place before anything else.”

In British Columbia the Salish Sea, Haida Gwaii, Prince Rupert, central coast, and the west coast of Vancouver Island are the major herring stock areas. However, the Salish Sea is the only remaining population that hasn’t shut down its commercial roe fishery this year.

“Our herring population is the only intact population in all of BC,” says Powell River Salmon Society president Sandy Sleath. “The other areas used to be strong, too, but are in a weak state right now.”

Sandy says there were about 20 years (1940-1960) where the Salish Sea had almost no herring, and only in the past decade have Pacific herring stocks been in a stable condition.

In a Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) ‘Strait of Georgia Herring’ report from 2001, DFO reported that between 1940 and 1960 the commercial fisheries put the Pacific herring population into extreme concern. By 1967 the commercial fisheries in the Salish Sea were shut down by the federal government. Four years later commercial fisheries were re-opened with a quota system in place to manage the herring. 

“Our herring stocks in the Strait of Georgia (Salish Sea) collapsed due to overfishing,” says Dawn Webb, United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union organizer. “That’s why we are so conservative in our management today, because we have rebuilt them and want to ensure a sustainable fishery for the future.”

“The roe herring fisheries will split a percentage of the commercial total allowable catch between the seine and gillnet fleets. So, about 55 per cent of the harvest goes to the seines and 45 per cent goes to the gillnets,” Dawn says. There are 12.3 tonnes per seine license and 1.9 tonnes per gillnet license. Each license has a fee; seines cost much more than gillnets because there are only 252 licenses whereas there are 1,276 gillnet licenses.

“These fees have to be paid to DFO before they can go fishing, and with this year’s low quota, it will cost around $230 to $360 per tonne of quota before any other expenses are even considered. 

“Fishermen were paid approx $400 per tonne for their herring last year, so you do the math. And if those license fees aren’t paid, DFO can involuntarily retire your license,” Dawn says.

Tla’amin’s Salish Seas Fisheries LP – the commercial fishing company – recently sent out requests for proposals to each of the three Nations (Tla’amin, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh) for their 12 roe herring gill-net licenses, meaning all 12 boats are restricted to catch much less roe herring than they would normally be allowed. 

“The DFO announcement affects all fishermen that end up with our leased herring licenses,” says Salish Seas Fisheries manager James Sandover.

“It will lessen the amount of fish they can catch and make it more difficult for them all.”

In recent years, W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership council (Tsartlip, Tsawout and Tseycum First Nations), Tla’amin Nation, Haida Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, Pacific Wild and Conservancy Hornby Island have all voiced their concerns about protecting the herring populations. 

“The Salish Sea herring have only just recovered within the last few years. Because they were fished less, the sea life came back. When the herring populations were low, we hardly saw any whales, and there were not any California sea lions,” says Sandy.

“Now, there are more whales and we are seeing much more sea life in general.

“The California sea lions have appeared for the first time in our area over the last few years. They have only begun to migrate here recently, likely due to the healthy herring population. The California sea lions are a threat to the rebuilding of herring stocks and are not a native species, which is a problem.”

And Dawn agrees, “If the Minister really wanted to make some tough decisions regarding ecosystem-based management, it would make more sense to have a sustainable harvest of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) because there is science that shows our current pinniped-prey system is unbalanced; they are actually impacting our salmon and herring stocks.”

What happens to all this harvested herring?

After a Salish Sea herring is caught, the eggs are taken, which are sold as an export to Japan and Europe. The fish are then sent to the food and bait fisheries where they are turned into either fish oil, bait, or pet food. 

In the 1980s roe herring would be bought for $5,000 per tonne by Japan, now one tonne of roe herring sells for around $400.

Herring can spawn up to nine times within their life and females can lay up to 20,000 eggs.

The Heiltsuk Nation (Bella Bella) opposed the commercial roe herring catch in their waters because the fish are killed for their eggs. The Nation instead opened a ‘spawn on kelp’ commercial fishery, where no fish are killed and the eggs are spawned onto weighted kelp lines in the herring spawn areas. 

DFO closed this commercial fishery for 2022, which in turn left the Nation with extreme frustration as this commercial fishery is their economic income and is a sustainable fishery where no fish are killed.

This item is reprinted with permission from qathet Living, Powell River/Salish Sea, British Columbia.

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