Scientific herring research catches up to Haida marine knowledge

Photo: Uli Harder

It seems like everyone is talking about linang herring these days. After an intense month negotiating the closure of the herring roe fishery in Haida waters, this spring saw large numbers of herring returning to spawn. Haida Fisheries project manager Brad Setso reports that the k’aaw in Skidegate Inlet has been the best it has been in a few years, and this season many families have been enjoying this traditional food. But there is still a lot of uncertainty about next year’s fishery: CHNs negotiations with the Herring Industry Advisory Board (HIAB) were only for the 2014 season and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has not made any statements regarding its plans for 2015. DFO justified its decision to ignore Haida, Heiltsuk and Nuu-chah-nulth demands to keep the herring fishery closed in 2014, citing its use of “sound peer-reviewed science and solid policy”. Three major scientific herring research projects in Haida waters may, however, change the terms of the 2015 fishing season. These projects address three of CHNs longstanding concerns: the environmental impacts of the commercial herring roe fishery, the scale at which DFO manages herring stocks and the establishment of accurate ecological baselines.

The first project is co-led by Gwaii Haanas and a team of researchers from across the country. They are interested in rapid ecosystems shifts – called “tipping points”.  Tipping points occur when small changes in human pressures (for instance, the introduction of new fishing technologies) or environmental conditions create rapid and dramatic changes in the ocean. These ecological tipping points concern environmental managers and communities because it is hard to know when they will happen, and once they do they can be very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.  The Tipping Points team is assessing the ecological impacts of four different types of herring fisheries: roe (seine and gillnet) and spawn-on-kelp(open and closed ponds). CHN has been telling DFO for many years that the commercial roe fishery is endangering herring stocks in Haida Gwaii. The results of this research may provide CHN with the ‘sound science’ it needs to protect herring stocks.

The second project is being led by Tony Pitcher, a fisheries ecologist at the University of British Columbia, in partnership with the Haida and Heiltsuk nations. They secured a three-year grant from the federal government to research the place of herring in the social and ecological systems of the North Coast. The project hopes to determine whether herring are composed of separate spawning populations (like salmon) or one single Pacific stock. Researchers use the most recent DNA sampling technology, supported by Haida Fisheries staff.Differing views over the existence of so-called “resident” herring stocks that consistently return to spawn have caused conflict between CHN and the DFO. Haida marine knowledge collected by CHN staff from 2007 to 2009 and recorded in the Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study (HMTK) demonstrates the existence of distinct local stocks with distinguishable physical characteristics, spawning times and spawning locations. For example, in the HMTK study large herring are associated with Louscoone, Selwyn and Skidegate Inlet, whereas the herring that spawned in Naden Harbour and Masset Inlet are reported to be much smaller. However, in spite of this, herring are currently managed in large geographic units that do not differentiate between local stocks. Because earlier DNA techniques were not sensitive enough to detect differences in herring stocks, DFO was able to argue that genetic and tagging studies do not provide evidence of such populations. Although still preliminary, Tony Pitcher states that “Initial results are confirming what has been suspected for a long time – most spawning populations are indeed distinct.”

Differing views over the existence of so-called “resident” herring stocks that consistently return to spawn have caused conflict between CHN and the DFO. Haida marine knowledge collected by CHN staff from 2007 to 2009 and recorded in the Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study (HMTK) demonstrates the existence of distinct local stocks with distinguishable physical characteristics, spawning times and spawning locations. For example, in the HMTK study large herring are associated with Louscoone, Selwyn and Skidegate Inlet, whereas the herring that spawned in Naden Harbour and Masset Inlet are reported to be much smaller. However, in spite of this, herring are currently managed in large geographic units that do not differentiate between local stocks. Because earlier DNA techniques were not sensitive enough to detect differences in herring stocks, DFO was able to argue that genetic and tagging studies do not provide evidence of such populations. Although still preliminary, Tony Pitcher states that “Initial results are confirming what has been suspected for a long time – most spawning populations are indeed distinct.” To address the third concern, a recent paper published by a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and ecologists argues that for the past 10,000 years sufficient herring was consistently available to meet the needs of First Nations. Excavations of 171 ancient village middens from Washington, British Columbia and Alaska – including several sites in Gwaii Haanas and two in Masset Inlet – reveal consistently large deposits of herring bones. This study provides evidence that herring were consistently harvested over the course of thousands of years along the northern Pacific coast, suggesting a “resilient relationship between harvesters, herring, and environmental change.” The study also cites the Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study. Haida people know that herring have been returning to spawn in fewer places and are spawning less than in the past. Gaaying.uuhlas

To address the third concern, a recent paper published by a team of anthropologists, archaeologists and ecologists argues that for the past 10,000 years sufficient herring was consistently available to meet the needs of First Nations. Excavations of 171 ancient village middens from Washington, British Columbia and Alaska – including several sites in Gwaii Haanas and two in Masset Inlet – reveal consistently large deposits of herring bones. This study provides evidence that herring were consistently harvested over the course of thousands of years along the northern Pacific coast, suggesting a “resilient relationship between harvesters, herring, and environmental change.” The study also cites the Haida Marine Traditional Knowledge Study. Haida people know that herring have been returning to spawn in fewer places and are spawning less than in the past. Gaaying.uuhlas Roy Jones Senior, for example, explained to the HMTK interviewer that “you just look at a map; everywhere you used to get herring spawn.”  Since the collapse of the herring fishery the CHN has argued that stocks need to be rebuilt to historical levels. But what constitutes the historical baseline is debated. At the moment, DFO relies on baseline data from 1950 to decide whether herring are abundant enough to open the commercial roe fishery. However, this 2014 study suggests that herring were already declining by 1950 following over fifty years of intensive and unregulated industrial fishing – mostly for the creation of reductions such as oil, animal feed and fertilizer. Haida elders such as  Yaahldaajii Gary Russ remember the devastating impacts of these years:

“…when I was a kid, there was an extensive reduction herring fishery… from the village you could see the boats all anchored up—it looked like a city across the bay—all the boats that were anchored up there. And they fished that out.”

Taking into account this new archeological data and the expertise of First Nations would create a more accurate historical baseline for assessing whether fish stocks are sufficiently abundant to allow a commercial fishery.Together, the preliminary findings of these most recent scientific studies confirm Haida knowledge of linang

Together, the preliminary findings of these most recent scientific studies confirm Haida knowledge of linang herring. Considering this new information about herring in Haida waters would inform future management decisions regarding this culturally and ecologically important fish.

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