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Conservationists warn of catastrophe for herring

Nov 30 2011

A change in the Strait of Georgia herring fishery could be catastrophic for resident herring populations, conservationists say.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is transferring some of the annual herring allocation from the spring roe fishery to a winter food and bait fishery, but that could mean the resident herring population will be caught along with the migratory populations, said Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

"A fishery at this time and in this region could have catastrophic consequences for resident herring as well as for other marine species that rely on these fish," Genovali said in a letter to federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield.

"We question whether the DFO has the authority to authorize the collapse of resident herring populations," said Genovali, who wants more public and scientific scrutiny.

Herring fisheries in areas such as the Haida Gwaii and the west coast of Vancouver Island have been closed for about a decade because stocks collapsed and risks should not be taken with resident herring stocks, especially as little is known about them, Raincoast biologist Caroline Fox said.

Herring feed many of B.C.'s iconic species such as chinook salmon, which, in turn, are the primary food of resident killer whales.

"They underpin the marine food web. They are critical forage fish for Gray whales, humpbacks, sealions and seabirds," Fox said.

Coastal First Nations also rely on herring for roeon-kelp.

Jake Schweigert, DFO herring biologist at Nanaimo's Pacific Biological Station, said the changes were requested by the industry as the Japanese market for Canadian herring roe has weakened.

DFO allows for a maximum of 20 per cent of a herring stock to be taken annually in both the food and roe fisheries, which could mean a maximum of about 30,000 tonnes from the Strait of Georgia. But the industry does not want that much, Schweigert said.

"We are looking at about 18,000 tonnes," he said.

The difference is that about 6,000 tonnes will come from the winter food fishery compared with 280 tonnes last year.

"I believe there's a market in Nigeria and Eastern Europe," Schweigert said.

Bays and harbours where resident herring stocks are believed to collect are off-limits, he said.

"Resident stocks are a bit of a concern and we try to keep the fishery away from areas that might harbour local stocks," he said.

Little is known about resident herring, Schweigert said. "We really don't know if these resident stocks exist," he said.

One theory is the fish could be genetically the same as migratory stocks, but stay in the Strait of Georgia for an extra year instead of heading out to the west coast of Vancouver Island, Schweigert said.

Genetic tests, using new techniques, are being conducted, he said.

Fox said there is considerable evidence that herring live in the Strait of Georgia, even though little is known about them.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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