The return of Pacific herring from the open ocean to coastal waters is a special time in the Great Bear Rainforest. It coincides with the turning of the seasons as the long winter yields to spring - marking the return to a more plentiful time of year for the inhabitants of the central coast.
The herring arrive in droves, their silvery bodies packed into tight schools pushing towards shallow coastal waters. Following close behind are numerous predators - marine mammals such as sea lions and whales - keen for a meal as the forage fish move into inlets and bays to spawn en masse.
The milt released by the males turns the water a distinct milky white, signalling to the females that the water is ready for their eggs. As you can see in the picture at the beginning of this post, female herring deposit up to 20,000 eggs (roe) a year in these milty waters, coating the rocks and algae along the shoreline.
Bears, wolves, and birds flock to the scene, eager to partake in the bountiful protein after a lean winter. Heavy predation on the roe and juvenile herring contribute to a high mortality rate, but the population will be stable even if only one in every 10,000 eggs survives to adulthood.
Spawn on kelp fishery
The animals of the central coast are not the only ones with reason to celebrate the return of the herring.
Since time immemorial, the Heiltsuk and other First Nations along the B.C. coast have relied on herring roe as an important food source. The traditional method of harvesting the roe is through the spawn on kelp (SOK) fishery.
Various kelp species – and even hemlock boughs – are hung off floats in the coastal waters at the start of a spawn. Female herring, preferring kelp as a substrate for their eggs, spawn on the kelp, which is then retrieved, coated with roe. The roe is then processed and used for food or for commercial use.
This method of harvesting does not harm the herring themselves, and allows them to return in future years to spawn again - a key component of a fishery that has been practiced sustainably for millennia.
Industrial sac roe fishery
In contrast, the other approach to harvesting herring roe - the industrial sac roe fishery - has arrived in more recent years and has been practiced in a far more shortsighted manner.
In this fishery, large seine and gillnet boats use nets to trap herring by the tonnes, eventually killing them and extracting their roe. The herring roe is sold abroad at a premium, while the bodies are used for fertilizer and animal feed.
Combined with historical mismanagement of fishery quotas, this method has vastly reduced the herring stocks in the Great Bear Rainforest, and overfishing has contributed to the collapse of many herring populations along the coast.
Population decline forced Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to shut down the commercial sac roe herring harvest on the central coast from 2008 through 2013. For the last three years, DFO has deemed stocks healthy enough for industrial harvest again, though the extent of the recovery is still uncertain.
The decision to open the kill fishery in 2015 sparked controversy and public dissent, and the Heiltsuk First Nation ultimately staged an occupation of DFO offices in an attempt to make their opposition heard.
More on the controversial 2015 season and what's happened since is coming up later this week. For now, check out this video to learn more. You can also tune in to watch the spawn unfold in real time - above and below the water on the Great Bear LIVE cameras.