The Fight For a Fish That Feeds the BC Coast
The Heiltsuk Nation has worked hard to halt the recent collapse of herring populations. But the future is far from certain.
Heiltsuk and other coastal fishers (in this case, wolves) fishing side-by-side. Image: Kyle Artelle
On a recent April morning, we were on the hunt for eggs. Our search brought us an hour's boat ride from Bella Bella, in the Heiltsuk Nation of British Columbia, Canada.
We weren't the only ones there: a sea otter waved us through the entrance to the bay, as thousands of birds, from scoters to gulls, sandpipers to eagles, filled the air with their darting bodies and raucous bird-speak. Sea lions popped their heads out of the water, gasping asthmatically. The rich-smelling low tide revealed beaches with a grainy frosting of white eggs, laid by the fish orchestrating the whole show: herring.
Three wolves appeared from the edge of the mossy, wind-whipped forest. An adult and two juveniles strutted down to the water's edge, unfazed by the multi-species cacophony. After they'd had their fill of bountiful herring eggs, they carefully pawed at the water and caught some live fish to round out their meal.
What we were witnessing was taking place alongside a large-scale human fishery—one employing hundreds of Heiltsuk fishers.
Our morning gives a glimpse of the enormous, yet often underappreciated, importance of herring on this coast. If gigantic trees are the first image brought to mind of the coastal rainforests of Western North America, salmon are surely the second, often described as the 'lifeblood' of this region because of the countless animals and plants their spawning bodies feed.
But this tells only half the story. Whereas salmon provide the food many species need to make it through winter, it's the return of herring that marks the end of winter's starvation. "They are major drivers of rich, diverse and dynamic coastal ecosystems," said Caroline Fox, a biologist who has studied the ecology of herring for years.
The annual spawn is of such central importance that it marks the Heiltsuk New Year. For thousands of years, this abundance has shaped, and been shaped by, careful management by the Heiltsuk and neighbouring Nations. The relationship with herring has been sustained through a mix of non-lethal SOK ('Spawn on Kelp') harvesting—where hemlock or kelp is suspended in the water as a substrate for eggs to be laid on and harvested directly from—and cautious, informed approaches to a kill fishery (of adult fish, to be eaten).
However, in the past century, the imposition of federal management and industrial fisheries caused a drastic crash of populations. Careful place-based management approaches built over millennia were replaced with large-scale extraction, primarily for a "reduction" fishery where herring were caught to be ground up as fishmeal and oils. By the late '60s, the stock had collapsed.
After a partial recovery in the 70s, Canada instituted a "sac roe" fishery, wherein fish are killed and cut open to extract their eggs, a stark contrast to the SOK approach that harvests eggs while leaving fish free to spawn for years to come.
The herring stocks declined again through the ensuing decades, with the Heiltsuk Nation becoming increasingly frustrated that their expertise, knowledge, and rights to manage this fishery were ignored, while this key resource collapsed once again.
Tension culminated in 2015. Heiltsuk knowledge-holders and scientists found that the stock was not able to withstand continued pressure, and declared the fishery closed. Regardless, Canada opted to sanction a sac roe fishery in a vital SOK harvesting area. Heiltsuk Leadership responded by peacefully occupying the Canadian Fisheries and Oceans base near Bella Bella BC for three days.
The standoff was resolved when Canada promised a new co-management approach whereby Heiltsuk rights to not only the resource, but also its management, are respected. This is promising, though negotiations on what this co-management will ultimately look like are ongoing.
The explosion of life we saw in that bay one month ago gives a glimpse of the richness of the past, but it also provides a stark contrast for the present.
As in many places around the world, the current 'baseline' abundance of herring in Heiltsuk Territory is a severely depleted population. Herring return in fewer numbers than they did even in living memory, and in only a fraction of the areas. Many bays that once burst to life each spring now remain quiet, devoid of herring. The wolves we witnessed were well-fed, but their cousins a few bays over had no such feast. Steps towards resumption of Heiltsuk-led management provide promise for restoring the relationships here that sustained this species and the coastal ecosystems for millennia. But we aren't out of the water yet.
By now, the eggs at the centre of the recent ruckus have hatched into young herring. They bear an immense responsibility for ending winter starvations and bringing in New Years to come. But they are in uncertain waters.
Kyle Artelle is a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a PhD candidate with the Reynolds Lab and the Applied Conservation Sciences Lab, and a Wilburforce Fellow, Hakai Scholar and Vanier Fellow. He lives in Bella Bella BC, with much of his work occurring in collaboration with the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, Qqs Projects Society, Spirit Bear Research Foundation, and the Central Coast Bear Working Group.
Mike Reid is the aquatics manager at the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department. He coordinates the management and policy of all aquatic resources, and guides marine research throughout Heiltsuk Territory, led by HIRMD and partner organizations.
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