Our Herring Watch project has been active since 2013 in response to dwindling numbers of genetically distinct Pacific Herring in the Gorge Waterway. This project, up until recently, consisted of doing creel surveys where we interview and monitor anglers. Since then, the project has grown and now includes the collaborative hanging of spawning curtains in local harbours, Herring Watch App, and whale watchers keeping an eye out for forage fish, and much more to come!
A Gorge Herring, are said to have a purple iridescence compared to the green-blue found elsewhere.
Pacific herring are small (15-25 cm) marine fish with silvery-white sides and iridescent blue-green backs. They provide an important link in the food chain between plankton and larger predators including fish, birds, and marine and coastal mammals. They spend most of their lives in open water but migrate each year to spawn in nearshore environments. Spawning generally occurs in early spring and attracts an impressive congregation of wildlife.
Herring are particularly nutritious: 62% of a Chinook Salmons diet, and 58% of a Coho salmons diet, is herring.
Colonial commercial fisheries started in the early 1900s, with a large seine “reduction” fishery that led to the first collapse in the early 1950s. After recovery, a sac roe fishery for the herring eggs was initiated in the late 1960s, which has been blamed for a second drastic stock reduction on most of the coast. Only the Georgia Strait fishery was opened in 2019, with substantial controversy on its sustainability. Negative effects of climate change, increased predation by growing whale and seal populations, and deterioration of some near-shore spawning and rearing environments no doubt all also contribute to the failure of stocks to recover.
The Crew getting ready to hang spawning curtains to provide more herring spawning habitat
Why do we care?
The Lekwungen First Nations of the Capital Regional District (CRD), are named after the smoked herring they traditionally prepared, used and traded. To entice the fish to spawn they used to hang hemlock branches in the Gorge. Unfortunately, it has been a longtime time since traditional harvest has been able to take place due to the reduced number of fish.
Historically, herring used to spawn in fair numbers off Greater Victoria’s shores. Unfortunately, the last officially recorded spawn in the Victoria area was in 1995, though it is likely some spawning still occurs in small numbers. In the Gorge, the last recorded spawning event was in 1973. What is interesting about the Gorge Herring is that they were actually genetically distinct from those that spawned elsewhere. Though some still come up the Gorge it is not nearly up to the same numbers as they were. Nevertheless, the Victoria and Esquimalt Harbours fill up with juvenile herring over the summer.
By monitoring our local populations of these fish we aim to increase our understanding and be able to detect evolving changes in their density.
What are we doing?
Creel Surveys monitor the number and success of herring fishers on Craigflower Bridge and other fishing spots on the Gorge. This information provides us an indicator of the number of herring using the Gorge, itself an indicator of how many herring are in the area. This work has been going on for the last 6 years and provides evidence that Gorge herring numbers continue to decline, but at least some are spawning somewhere locally.
Herring curtains have been proposed as enhancement tools for herring. In 2020, World Fisheries Trust assisted some local partners (Doug and Jim Shortreed) in hanging and monitoring spawning curtains in the Victoria area. The curtains are a monitoring tool to determine if herring are spawning in the harbours and provide a clean substrate for herring eggs to hatch.
Herring Watch asks the public to be citizen scientists and report herring and other forage fish activity, whether it is young herring hanging around a dock, herring schools off the waterfront, animals feeding on bait balls, spawning events, or herring in the stomach of an anglers catch. Report herring activity directly to us, through Anglers Atlas: My Catch, and iNaturalist apps.