Why do we oppose the Salish Sea commercial herring fishery?

Imminent danger of herring fishery collapse

In our Salish Sea, herring stocks are down this year—again. And the Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Bernadette Jordan, despite advice from her own scientists, has approved a commercial herring fishery that may take up to 20% of the herring—again. The Minister is flirting with total collapse of the herring fishery: 4 of the 5 BC herring fisheries are currently closed because populations are so depressed. Bob Turner, a member of the Conservancy Board has made a short film that documents what happens during the commercial fishery (see the end of this article).

Please read the letter to the Minister, signed by 70 conservation and marine tourism organizations, asking for the commercial herring fishery to be suspended. And please write your own letter of opposition to the Minister.


The Bowen Island Conservancy is joining with other Conservancies and Environmental groups to demand that the Department of Fisheries & Oceans eliminate or substantially reduce the industrial herring Fisheries in the Salish Sea. Some historical background and rationale for our position:

  • First Nations use: First Nations oral histories, confirmed by archeological studies, establish that herring have been used by indigenous people on the BC coast for thousands of years.

    Herring were caught by various means throughout the year, and herring eggs were collected on tree branches or kelp during spawning season. First Nations elders describe obtaining herring throughout the year and obtaining spawn annually. However, for most of these communities, access to herring and herring spawn is a thing of the past.

    Recent archeological studies confirm that herring was consumed by indigenous people in very large quantities, in some places surpassing salmon as a staple food. Captain Cook, visiting West Coast Vancouver island in 1778, referred to herring spawn as the peoples “winter bread”. Importantly, the archeological studies and oral histories describe herring being consistently available throughout the Salish Sea.

    Regrettably, the abundance of herring on our coast has sharply declined in modern times, both in quantity and distribution.

  • Ecological importance: Herring play a significant role in the ecology of the Salish sea. They are an important food source for chinook salmon, seabirds, whales and other mammals. If you have watched Bob Turner’s video above, you will have learned why herring are such an important part of the food web.

  • Industrial herring fishing: Commercial fishing for herring by non-indigenous people began in the 19th century. The fishery grew, and in the early 20th century dry salted herring for export became a major industry. In the 1930s the fishery expanded again, rendering massive quantities of herring for fish meal and oil. By the 1950s, catches exceeded 200,000 tons annually.

    This fishery was unsustainable, and in the 1960s herring stocks collapsed and the commercial herring fisheries were shut down. By the early 1970s, though, stocks had somewhat recovered and a “roe fishery” for export to Japan commenced. This fishery involves extracting the roe from the females and then rendering the female carcasses and all of the males into fish meal, used in agriculture and as feed for fish farms. The roe fishery grew, harvesting thousands of tons annually, and continues as the major herring fishery today. The other significant herring fishery is named “food and bait”, and a recent investigation by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre concludes that this fishery provides exports for fish food for tuna farms and captive whales.

    As with previous herring fisheries, serious sustainability issues have developed. At present, stocks in four of the five management areas on the coast have collapsed to the point where they are insufficient to carry on herring fisheries. The remaining area, the Salish sea, has been the exception for many years, but recently stocks have declined sharply.

Our conclusion

The Conservancy has concluded that it is time for DFO to take sustainability seriously, and either cancel the fishery or make substantial amendments to management, recognizing the importance of herring to the ecology of the Salish Sea.

What happens during the commercial fishery?