Herring and UNDRIP: Narrowing choices in an ecological collapse

On historic highs, routine mismanagement, and a potential path forward through co-management

Loys Maingon

Increasingly, there is a yawning gap between the apparent growing prosperity and abundance that we experience daily, and the ecological collapse around us that is hardly noticed, and only discussed in arcane circles of environmental scientists and First Nations.

In BC, a provincial fisheries collapse and the consequent news that fishermen will need to be economically bailed out are reported by news outlets only to fall on deaf ears. Letters in Science (November 2019) with what might once have been considered “alarmist” titles, such as: “Salmon in clear and present danger” note laconically that: “Habitat destruction has driven the collapse of wild salmon fisheries from California to Washington, where 93% of wild salmon abundance has been lost.” Assuming that somehow the reality of the ongoing salmon collapse is different in BC, those now-banal data only draw a yawn.

It is, however, a global cultural problem as we see science increasingly marginalized in public planning and decision making. There appears to be a large dissonance between what is actually happening to the state of the environment around us, our material expectations, and the assumptions we make about the stability of the “resource environment.” We treat a rapidly changing and deteriorating environment as though it remains the cornucopia of infinite resources it was at the time of contact, and as if the drivers of change have had no significant long-term or cumulative impacts.

Even local increases in species richness, which give the misleading illusion of increasing biodiversity, can set the stage for a decline in local resilience. Therefore, what we appear to be witnessing, particularly in ocean ecosystems, is a human-driven instability in biodiversity which is a prelude to ecosystem collapse.

The point that most people seem to miss is that it is not just the species composition that is changing. It is the matrix or envelope of that composition that we are rapidly changing, with foreseeable consequences.

Pacific Herring

Coastal BC’s ecosystem food chains are already under severe stresses. It is not just the southern resident orcas, and their main prey, the Chinook salmon, that are threatened with extinction. The very foundation of the entire chain, the Chinook’s main prey the Pacific herring which officially collapsed from overfishing in 1965 and again in 1993, has never rebounded to historic highs.

There is considerable controversy as to whether current numbers warrant re-opening a fishery in the Salish Sea. Of particular note, the DFO numbers used in modelling are based on the total biomass of an assumed annual return of an offshore population, using the total catch for 1953 onwards as the benchmark. (1953 happens to have been the year of a massive population collapse.) The stock has consequently been routinely grossly overestimated based on a flawed short-term database, and for the last 40 years the allowable catch has been set at an unsustainable 20%, resulting in the successive collapse of herring spawning sites.

The herring return was overestimated by 30% and the take was exceeded by 20%, a regular practice

How this failed management approach translates in practical terms can be illustrated by the DFO’s own numbers for last year’s fishery in Lambert Channel, which was opposed by conservationists and most First Nations.

In simple terms, the return was overestimated by 30% and the take was exceeded by 20%, a regular practice that explains the collapse of all other previous herring spawns.

Against the DFO’s broad assumption that the biomass is equivalent to “historic highs,” it can be difficult for the uninitiated and the public to understand that current returns in no way approximate the abundance of herring at contact and at the turn of the century. Stephen Hume puts this into perspective from a historical anecdote that was frequently corroborated by early settlers: “In June of 1893, a small steam tug thumped past Nanaimo. Abruptly, the sea began to seethe. It was a herring school so vast it took three hours to traverse. The school was 70 kilometres across.”

The actual magnitude of the decline of herring in the Salish Sea before contact has been reconstructed archaeologically by McKechnie et al. Herring consumption was prevalent from Puget Sound to Alaska, but it was highest around the Salish Sea. It amounted to between 80 to 100% of the fish consumed by the native population, and therefore had to correspond to fishing from extremely abundant year-round herring populations.

By this measure, the now-unique Lambert Channel fishery between Hornby and Denman islands constitutes an anomalous vestige of a pre-contact ecosystem, which flourished for millennia until about 1953. And even as a vestige it now has its own problem with local kelp reproduction, which is essential for herring reproduction. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Salish Sea is increasingly considered by many to be a broken ecosystem on the verge of collapse.

Not included in the DFO estimates are the losses of some 21 resident populations unique to the Salish Sea, which are known by local First Nations and commercial fishermen to have been fished year-round. Many of these resident herring populations have been extirpated, as is to be expected from a fishery which intercepts a species by removing both reproductive adults and eggs from its life-cycle.

Co-management – a way forward

There is growing concern over the collapse of the herring fishery throughout the BC coast. It is felt that it is a product of the DFO’s over-estimation and questionable mismanagement of the stock.

After decades of opposition to the DFO’s management of herring, in 2016 the Supreme Court enabled the Heiltsuk Nation to enter in a joint-management agreement with the DFO. Notwithstanding teething disagreements, the Heiltsuk management protocols have now returned to traditional management practices which do not target adult fish and which limit the roe fishery.

The success of this agreement has motivated First Nations around the Salish Sea to advocate for a similar arrangement to control the fishery at Lambert Channel and throughout the Salish Sea. In November, Saanich Nation WSÁNEĆ Leadership Council (WLC) of Tsartlip, Tseycum, and Tsawout First Nations invited 25 local First Nations and 50 community organizations to an event called HELIT TTE SLON,ET (Let the Herring Live), to develop the groundwork for a traditional management agreement based on science, similar to the Heiltsuk joint management agreement.

Fundamental to this effort is the question of “social licence.” The DFO’s decades of mismanagement, and the interests that have benefited from this, have largely lost the support of both fishing communities and the public. Unlike fisheries from previous decades, the BC commercial fleet is no longer a quilt work of small boat owners. The commercial fleet is now concentrated in the ownership of BC’s richest billionaire, and therefore the benefits of a destructive fishery are mostly accrued by one billionaire.

Most of BC is still on unceded territory, and therefore, in principle, the environment is to be managed at the very least through joint management agreements with the rightful owners. There is now an obligation to act in good faith and to work jointly.

The discussion raised by the WSÁNEĆ Leadership Council comes at a very opportune moment in BC’s history. BC has become the first province in Canada to move to endorse as part of its laws the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). This is a matter of momentous importance for environmental biologists working around BC. Most of BC is still on unceded territory, and therefore, in principle, the environment is to be managed at the very least through joint management agreements with the rightful owners. There is now an obligation to act in good faith and to work jointly.

The open question remains that of “good faith” in an environment and history that has done little to build trust, since all gains have had to be acquired in court.

UNDRIP may be presented as a “game changer,” however one notices that around the world, it is disregarded when powerful interests are at play, as in Australia’s Adani mine expansion which saw Queensland extinguish Indigenous title in 2019. In Canada things are not radically different from Queensland. There still seems to be an inequality in the law for First Nations. Although we claim to respect and recognize the rights inherent in Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and now in UNDRIP, a recent study showed that in practice there is still one law for First Nations, and another very different one that grants far more authority and rights to the interests of corporations and government.

So, while UNDRIP may be a move in the right direction for First Nations’ rights, as well as for sustainable environmental management practices that affect all of us, there is a long way to go, and very little time to get there.

Loys Maingon MA, PhD, MSc (RPBio) is the BC Director of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists

Extracted from the complete article with full references in the winter issue of The Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists

This article appears in our February-March 2020 issue.








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