For the second year in a row, Pacific herring returns to the west coast of Vancouver Island have been slightly higher than expected. Although final numbers are not yet in, preliminary estimates from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) indicate a herring return of 25,000-29,000 tonnes as of March 29. The overall herring biomass presented in this year’s management plan for the west coast of Vancouver Island was 16,889 tonnes.

Although there have been no commercial herring fisheries on the west coast of Vancouver Island since 2006 due to low abundance, this year’s forecast left some room for a small commercial spawn-on-kelp fishery. One of four commercial herring fisheries in B.C., the spawn-on-kelp (SOK) fishery could provide a welcome source of income for nations if successful. Currently there are 46 SOK licences in the fishery. Sixteen First Nations operate 26 of those licences, while individuals fish the remainder.

This year’s plan for herring expected about 320 tonnes to be available for a commercial spawn-on-kelp fishery. Four Nuu-chah-nulth Nations hold commercial spawn-on-kelp licences, and three initially expressed some interest in taking part. At press time, however, none of the nations had done so due to complications with equipment and a desire to preserve herring stocks.

Unlike the commercial roe fishery where whole herring is harvested, the spawn-on-kelp fishery involves the harvest of herring spawn only (k’waqmis, siihmuu, or siihbuu).

To harvest the eggs, licence holders string kelp onto lines submerged underwater in areas where herring are likely to spawn. Others submerge kelp in open or closed pens where captured herring are corralled prior to spawning.

After the herring spawn on the kelp, they are released from the pens. Harvesters gather, trim, and brine the spawn-coated kelp before shipping it for processing. Most spawn-on-kelp is destined for Japanese markets.

Some Nuu-chah-nulth elders believe that herring season always follows stormy weather. This is nature’s way of cleaning off the kelp and eelgrass so herring eggs can better adhere to the blades. Spawning generally takes place in sheltered bays and inlets where submerged vegetation is abundant. Along the west coast of Vancouver island, herring spawn has been found below 100 feet.  According to Canada’s Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for herring (2012), female herring may produce as many as 20,000 eggs in one spawn. 

To date, DFO has reported spawning activity in the Barkley Sound area near Salmon Beach, David Island,
the Stopper Islands, and along the north side of St. Ines; and in Clayoquot Sound throughout Matilda Inlet, Sidney Inlet, Bawden Bay, and near Ahousaht. Light spawning activity also occurred near Marvinas Bay, and north of Harbour Island in the Nootka area.

Although this year’s returns didn’t make it easy for Nuu-chah-nulth Nations to take part in a commercial spawn-on-kelp fishery, nations took part in the fishery in other ways.  This year DFO contracted Hesquiaht, Ahoushat, and Ucluelet First Nations to survey local waters for herring and herring spawn using small charter boats. The information gathered helps Canada manage herring stocks for future sustainability.

Some Nuu-chah-nulth Nations also harvested herring and spawn for food and ceremonial purposes, though that too was a challenge.

“Some people got some spawn on bough—but not very much,” says Kanupiit (Rocky Titian) of Ahousaht. “This year wasn’t good for us, but it was good for the herring. They spawned all over the bay, in one or two layers…My grandfather used to say that the bottom layers don’t hatch [when the spawn is thick]. They get smothered. So this year was better for the herring.”