Hearing the Herring by Captain Quinn

Local activists hang "herring curtains" in porpoise bay.Last year I had the privilege of meeting and working with Dr. Jonn Matsen. Dr. Matsen is a highly respected naturopathic doctor on the North Shore, who's work inside the office brings forth miracles of all sorts. Outside the office isn't much different for this energetic and charismatic doctor. The only difference, in fact, is that instead of working with human patients, he is working with salmon and herring-those shiny silver fish who's role in west coast ecosystems is integral. With recent restoration efforts seeing nearly 100% hatch out rates, signs of restoring the decimated populations of these fish to healthy historical numbers seem evident. You would expect Dr. Matsen to be happy with these results, looking towards the horizon for a better future to surface. However, this is not the case. Not yet.

Dr. Matsen also co-chairs the Squamish Stream Keepers Society along with the hard working dedicated Jack Cooley of whom I also had the privilege of meeting last year. The Squamish Streamkeepers is an organization dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the riparian habitat of local streams so that fish, especially salmon (adults, smolts and fry) can navigate streams and successfully spawn. In addition to their efforts with salmon, they have also been working with herring. In 2006 they made an astonishing discovery in Howe Sound. They discovered that herring were spawning on creosoted pilings on the east terminal pier at the head of Howe Sound. The creosote, they soon realized, was killing the herring roe before they even had a chance to hatch. After some experimentation, they found that by wrapping plastic and weed control material around the pilings, the survival rate increased almost one hundred percent. In 2008, they discovered that the concrete pilings of the West Terminal were also killing herring roe and in 2009 they wrapped some of these pilings as well. They have since wrapped over 200 pilings, hung linear material from one end to the other and suspended a floating material with a lead lined bottom---anything to prevent the herring from spawning on creosoted pilings. This year, 2012, in upper Howe Sound, they have already seen two large spawns but are expecting the largest spawns to take place in the month of March. 

It does not take long for success stories like this to travel. Following this amazing work, many local citizens and organizations from the lower main-land to the Gulf Islands to the Sunshine Coast have stepped up to the plate. The Rotary Club of Pender Harbour has since hung over 500 feet of what they call “herring curtains” throughout Halfmoon Bay, Secret Cove, Egmont and Pender Harbor. And in fact, I recently had the privilege of hanging some “herring curtains” myself only a week ago. Local Naturalist, Lee-Ann Ennis phoned me up to inform me that she had received some material from the Rotary Club, sewed some curtains and was looking for places to set them. Lee-Ann also works for the Iris Griffith Center and is active in the Sunshine Coast Biological Diversity Project along with many others including the young masters student, Rosalind Patrick who was also actively involved in this restoration effort. It was a project that I was proud to be apart of and now there are two more herring curtains set in Sergeants Bay and two more in Sechelt Inlets, Porpoise Bay. Sechelt First Nations Elder, Barb Higgins tells me Porpoise Bay used to be so full of herring you could catch them with a rake. Today, if you drained the entire bay, you would be lucky to catch much of anything due to poor management, habitat destruction, over fishing and pollution. In the future, however, because of the valiant efforts of concerned citizens and engaged activists this ecosystem along with the rest of the coastal ecosystems may just thrive once again.

Herring roe.Herring naturally spawn on smooth vertical surfaces and bladderwrack, a common brown shoreline seaweed. They have also been known to spawn on kelp and floating or partially submerged evergreen branches.

So why are herring choosing to spawn on toxic material such as creosoted piling? Maybe it is because their natural habitat has been destroyed by human activity or maybe it is because they just don't know the difference. I think that it is impossible to point fingers at any one human activity but you can definitely point fingers at human activity when discussing any issue related to the decreased health of our environment.

Trawlers still roam BC’s waters and in search of shrimp or bottom dwelling fish such as flounder and rock fish they drag a large metal beam across the sea-bed. In fact, I saw three in front of my house last week. By-catch is a term used to address all the organisms caught by “accident” in commercial fishing. It contributes to an overall decline in fisheries and is a means of overfishing for the undesired catch. The by-catch in trawling is astronomical. As high as 20:1 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In a research document titled, “Estimated Bycatch in the British Columbia Shrimp Trawl Fishery” the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada recognizes areas in the Salish Sea, formerly known as the Straight of Georgia, to have the highest ratios of bycatch in the province. Since the bycatch holds little economic value, it is discarded back over the sides of the boats, only to float lifelessly back down to the depths from which it came. In addition to by-catch, bottom trawling also destroys everything else living on the ocean floor such as sponge, coral, seaweed and many other important organisms. When considering the destruction caused by trawling, it seems wise to ask--why isn’t there a moratorium on Trawling? The answer of course is engrained in economics. Can we blame trawling for reduced herring stocks and the diminished health of our oceans? If we consider that everything within an ecosystem plays a crucial role and when one part is destroyed the impact is felt all throughout we can answer this question with---Yes, partially.

Over fishing and poor management is absolute in their contribution to the diminished health of our oceans. It is a trend that has been repeating itself since the state and industry first took control over our resources. According to historical records every commercial fishery has collapsed or is on the brink of collapsing. What happens when a fishery collapses? The fleet alters its gear and strategies to target another species. The documentary film “The End of the Line” examines the world wide impact of over fishing. It concludes that if we do not stop, think and act in appropriate ways with regards to commercial fishing, there will come a time when our oceans will be nothing more than an orange toxic liquid mass void of fish. According to the scientist interviewed in the film this could all happen by 2048. I will be in my 60’s by then. Can we blame over fishing, poor management and industrial pressure for reduced herring stocks and the diminished health of our oceans? When we take the time to look first hand at the issue we can answer this question with---Yes, largely.

In a fairly recent concerned letter, calling out to the public, Dr. Matsen further highlights some identified concerns and threats facing herring populations in the Straight of Georgia. Why do we make the effort to restore something? It is because at some point it has been destroyed. This is the case with most fisheries and with herring it is no different. If populations were still thriving as they once were, there would be little reason for concern but they are not. Remedying the creosoted piling situation may provide one last chance to restore herring populations in Howe Sound and the Salish Sea, to where they once were. He argues that without the cooperation of everyone, than this chance discovery/opportunity and all the work that has gone into it will prove fruitless. 

Over the past 5 years actively concerned people and organizations have worked hard to rebuild herring stocks in Howe Sound and the Salish Sea. The Squamish Streamkeepers estimate that the stocks have been re-built to 600 tons, 1400 tons short of where it was estimated to be in the 1960’s. Reasons for the decline in stocks can be largely attributed to commercial overfishing, and industrial damage of their spawning grounds. People can argue with the numbers all they want but who can argue with the reasoning? The bottom line is that everyone should now understand that present herring populations fall almost unrecognizable when compared to historical populations. 

A good year and signs of recovery are great things and we should welcome this news with open arms, not open nets. What do we do when the Fraser River System sees a good return of Sockeye? We open our nets. What do we do when herring populations are showing signs of recovery? We open our nets. Now, would be a good time to point out that, no one living organism exists solely to support human life OR our economy. There are many other animals that live in these ecosystems, all of whom depend on each other for survival. Our needs as a species are only a fraction of many and as we continue to demand more than our fair share, we are reducing biological diversity. Something that the incredible mind of Charles Darwin would argue is the key to life. Our environment and all that it contains can live without the human species but we cannot live without our environment and all that it contains. 

It is apparent in his article that this disregard for the health of our oceans is where Dr. Matsen’s frustration now lies. He points out that at the hands of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, all tireless work towards restoration and recently returning runs are in serious jeopardy of being exterminated this year. The DFO regulates Salish Sea herring as one biomass and in their minds or at least in regulatory policy, herring stocks in Salish Sea are in good shape. Based on this false assumption they went ahead and increased the commercial herring fishery in the Salish Sea from a 238 ton food fishery to a 6000 ton food fishery, this year. It is not hard to understand why Dr. Matsen and everyone working towards restoring the populations of herring and the health of our oceans are frustrated. It is an uphill battle to begin with and on-top of that, we are cleaning up other peoples messes and fighting government policy makers and industry who seem to be void of concern for the health of our oceans our environment and ultimately the health of our own species.

My grand parents and my parents are all avid fisherfolk. Who wasn’t in coastal communities in the 1940’s-1970’s? They used to tell me of stories of when the sea would boil to life with herring. The last time I saw something close to this was when I was a boy off of Texada Island. I have only witnessed this natural phenomenon once in my life and believe me it has not been for a lack of looking. I love fishing and have spent the majority of my life studying, researching, catching and looking out for all fish, especially salmon, who evidently, feed on herring.

Herring are a bait fish, they are close to the bottom of the food chain and feed everything above them, including salmon, cod, halibut, dolphins, seals, sea-lions, whales, birds, humans and more. Needless to say they play an integral role in west coast ecosystems but so does everything else. Every living organism, small or large has a job to do. They have not only a responsibility to their own species to survive but also to the environment. They do their job and maintain their role and responsibilities within the ecosystem to 100% of their capacity. They work beyond belief to ensure that they fulfill their duties and hold up their end of the bargain. All you have to do is take a look at the life-cycle of a salmon to see this in action. To what capacity are we holding up our role and responsibilities as humans? To be even more specific, to what capacity are you holding up yours? Our survival is now jeopardized by a disregard to the health of the environment. Our environment is a good host, we don’t punch a good host in the face.

In order to make this situation right again, we would need to look towards compassion and an understanding of our surrounding environment. We need to take a look at and re-assess our values. We need to look towards ancient First Nations cultures for guidance. The same cultures that have been repeatedly assaulted by the state since Europeans first settled on this land in the end of the 1700’s.

Prior to European settlement the populations of First Nations people living in the area now known as the Lower Sunshine Coast is estimated to have been more than 20,000. The surrounding environment at the time was so healthy and biologically diverse that sustainability was achieved. Attaining it was possible because these people understood their role in the overall health of the ecosystem and maintained their commitment to it, within it. Today the population of people living on the Lower Sunshine Coast is roughly the same. However, they seem to have forgotten this responsibility. Consequently, the surrounding environment has been degraded to such a point that they can no longer look to the land or the sea for survival. Residents now rely so heavily on imported goods that if grocery stores closed tomorrow everyone would have to leave.

Imagine a world where the management of a communities resources was controlled solely by that community. Communities would learn real quick that it is in their best interest to manage their resources adequately and respectfully. If they destroy their local environment or any resource within it than they have to live in a destroyed environment void of resources and logic will tell us that they wont live long. The choice to restore the health of their local environment would become the only choice.

Who has the right to dictate the management of ecosystems they don’t live within? Presently government and industry control this right but do they deserve to? The health of our environment is suffering and as a result so it ours as a species. It would be wiser to provide local communities living within these ecosystems with the right to manage their own local resources. This way they can suffer the consequences or live with the rewards when it comes to the management of their resources. This management strategy should be implemented and respected. We may even need to demand it but it will prove to be a far better alternative to present management strategies.

If we take the time to listen to our environment and all that lives within it. If we take the time to listen to the salmon, trees, whales, birds and of course herring. If we take the time to hear them, what are they telling us? They are telling us that we have polluted our environment. We have forgotten our role within it and neglected our responsibilities to it. We need to re-assess our values. Moreover, we need to work hard to restore the health of our surrounding environment and all life-forms within it. It is in this light that I commend all engaged activists and all the work that they are doing to uphold a responsibility that is just as important to our identity as our own sense of being. I commend Dr. Jonn Matsen and the Squamish Streamkeepers Society. I commend the Rotary Club of Pender Harbour. I commend Lee-Ann and Rosalind. I commend all my friends and family and anyone else who has moved from the realm of concerned citizens to engaged activists. You  are making a difference. You are part of an every growing movement and your efforts are increasing the health of our environment and our own species.

I thank you,

Captain Quinn