Gord Johns is not a popular man at French Creek harbour.
On a windy March morning, fishermen are mobilizing to greet millions of herring that have migrated to the shallow water near Parksville, B.C., to spawn.
A group of men smoking in the parking lot do a double-take and glare at Johns as he walks to the dock, recognizing the squat politician in his gumboots and rain gear.
Johns has been an MP for Courtenay-Alberni since 2015, but this is the first year he has come out against the herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia — one of five herring populations on the coast of B.C., and the last relatively healthy stock left.
Despite a campaign to close this commercial fishery, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has allowed it to move forward: on the day Johns came to visit (March 12), about 15 big seiners were hovering offshore.
By many accounts, Georgia Strait herring are coming back in “near historic” numbers this year, but it’s hardly something to celebrate.
Coast-wide, herring have become so depleted, they no longer can support commercial fisheries at all. And historic runs in places like Haida Gwaii, the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and the Central coast have failed to rebound, despite a cessation of commercial fishing pressure.
Which leaves the fishery on the east coast of Vancouver Island as one of the last industrial herring fisheries on the entire North American Pacific coast.
“This is like our Atlantic cod story, everything that happened there is now happening here,” says Johns of Pacific herring.
“What I’m hearing from my constituents, and coastal people overwhelmingly, is that they oppose the opening of this fishery.”
Catching 20 per cent of the biomass
To come back in the afterlife as a herring is a curse, an old saying goes, because almost everything out there wants to eat you.
Herring are the dominant forage fish in British Columbia waters — meaning they are the critical prey base, serving as an intermediary between plankton at one end and all the seabirds, chinook salmon, humpback whales (and much more) on the other.
The “sac-roe” fishery that started on March 9 uses seine and gill nets to catch female herring for their eggs, which are sold as “kazunoko” in Japan. This is the highest value product of the fishery.
All the rest, including all the males, will be turned into slurry to feed pets and farmed salmon.
DFO has estimated that catching 20 per cent of the returning biomass of Georgia Strait herring is sustainable (see how they do it here), which means that for the sac-roe fishery alone, fishermen can catch up to about 20,000 tonnes of herring.
It sounds like a lot, but it’s a pittance compared to 1959, when over three times that amount was taken from the Strait of Georgia alone.
Herring are invisible to humans for most of the year, except during a brief window in spring when they migrate to coastal shallows to spawn.
According to Caroline Fox, a coastal ecologist and conservation scientist who has investigated the contribution of herring nutrients to health of coastal ecosystems, this movement is not so much a migration as a “pulse” of biomass that nourishes coastal waters and land.
Fox grew up in Lantzville near Parksville, and never forgot the big annual spawns. The herring would be “very cryptic” in the days leading up to the spawn; they would appear suddenly, sometimes overnight.
Each female lays up to 10,000 adhesive eggs that stick onto kelp, blades of eelgrass, boulders and even gravel. The males then “milk the water” releasing milt to fertilize the eggs, creating great white and aquamarine clouds that can stretch for tens of km for days on end. When the eggs ripen and hatch, a secondary pulse of nutrients nourishes the coast.
These young herring don’t become spawning adults until they reach three or four years old (some live up to 10 years), and unlike salmon, they live to spawn repeatedly.
Provided they aren’t eaten or caught first.
A return to ‘historic abundance’
On March 12, Gordon Johns boarded a sea taxi to visit the fishing grounds. Less than a kilometre offshore, with Mount Arrowsmith looming to the west, big seiners are sounding the depths in search of the fish.
A single set by one of these big boats like The Western Investor or Snow Queen, can scoop up over 100 tonnes of herring in a single set.
Timing is critical for this roe fishery — the seiners are constantly tracking the fish, because they have to time their catch before the females deposit their eggs. The water is rough with big swells, forcing the herring to hold in deeper water.
For now, it’s a waiting game.
The taxi arrives and disgorges Johns and a few journalists and NGO types onto The Habitat — the temporary home of author, photographer and Pacific Wild executive director Ian McAllister, who is coordinating the campaign amid the fishing boats.
Sitting in the cabin in a baseball cap and ripped jacket mended with duct tape, McAllister looks exhausted. He’s been on the fishing grounds for about a week, coordinating the campaign with the support of groups like SeaLegacy, which are taking the campaign to a global audience via social media.
McAllister says there should be no industrial herring fishery, and the goal should be to return herring to a state of “historical abundance” along the coast.
The question of what historical abundance is, in terms of hard numbers, is open to interpretation.
Part of the reason DFO stock assessment is so out of whack, McAllister insists, is that DFO bases its quota on a baseline snapshot of herring abundance from the early 1950s — the earliest point that standardized population estimates exist.
But Pacific herring were already depleted by industrial fisheries by this time: he says using this compromised historical baseline to gauge sustainable levels of harvest is “deceitful.”
Instead, McAllister looks to First Nations oral history and archaeological studies to gauge historical abundance — the latter suggesting that herring were far more numerous and widespread between 2,500 and 10,700 years ago than they are today.
Fisheries and Oceans did not provide an interview in time for this story.
Herring feed chinook
Johns opposes the fishery because herring feeds chinook salmon and the wider $1 billion tourism industry, including sports fishing and whale watching, that sustains his riding.
He is mystified that DFO talks about curtailing high-value B.C. chinook fisheries to protect killer whales, but allows a low-dollar value herring fishery that will mostly become animal feed.
“What happens if the food source for chinook salmon collapses?”
As he does throughout the day, MP Johns steers the conversation back to working fishermen, a constituency he is painfully conscious of alienating.
Regular working fishermen are the ones really feeling the squeeze here, he says.
Most of the herring quota is owned by absentee “arm-chair fishermen” who then hire local crews to catch the fish. For the latter it’s an important “stop-gap” fishery — a spring-opening at a time when there is nothing else happening commercially.
“People keep asking us ‘why aren’t you guys going after Pattison instead?’ “
The reference is to Jimmy Pattison, the billionaire who owns the Canadian Fishing Company (Canfisco), which in 2016 reported owning about a third of seine and more than 10 per cent of gillnet licenses for herring roe, and 30 per cent of the facilities that process the catch.
The Narwhal asked Phil Young, Canfisco’s vice president of fisheries and corporate affairs, what he thought about calls to close the fishery.
“There are people saying we shouldn’t fish salmon, and shouldn’t fish anything. Is it on [our] radar? Absolutely. But we’ve lived by the science for 30-plus years in this fishery. If an area of the coast has not had good recruitment [meaning the fish survive to a certain size or reproductive stage], we don’t fish. We haven’t argued with DFO on that.”
Young says Georgia Strait herring are at near record levels this year.
“You just have to look at the number of seals, sea lions, and whales coming back into that area [to see] it’s healthy in there, it says there’s lots of herring, as they feed a lot of those.”
The angry crew of the Golden Chalice
Hours later the water is still too rough for fishing, so the taxi departs back to the marina.
By now many of the fishermen waiting in docked boats know the taxi (and Johns) by sight, and as the boat lands, there are loud catcalls coming from a large fishing boat called The Golden Chalice.
The words are not audible, but the tone is not friendly.
“Emotions run high on both sides, between the environmental [sector] and the fishermen,” said Chris Wick, who is coordinating fishing activity on the herring grounds for North Delta Seafoods, a family business that has been involved with B.C. herring fishing for over 80 years.
“This should be about science.”
For Johns, our arrival to the dock is just the latest unpleasant moment for a man who has lived his whole life on Vancouver Island. It’s also become personal.
“My cousin is out there fishing right now,” he says. “He’s really pissed off at me.”