Sink or Swim

A snapshot of the precarious state of a fishery.

B.C. fisherman

A brisk wind ripples the water of Comox Harbour, making the sailboat stays sing like a thousand wind chimes. Peter Watson is milling about on the deck of his turquoise-green fish-packer, Diligence, his wavy silver hair crowning a tanned face that has weathered a storm or two.

On this late February day, Watson commiserates with other fishermen down at the Comox docks as they prepare for the annual herring harvest – perhaps one of the most unusual fisheries on the West Coast, one based solely on a taste in Japan for a delicacy known as kazunoko. Produced from herring roe, or eggs, kazunoko is a traditional and prestigious gift, and for 30 years this gastronomic specialty that few in North America can pronounce, let alone stomach, has fuelled a lucrative fishery worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the B.C. economy.

The down-low on herring roe
More of B.C.’s exotic delicacies

Our Pacific Rim neighbours once had an insatiable appetite for the stuff. From the glory days of herring fishing 20 years ago, tales abound of a boat earning $500,000 or more in a single set, astern to another that hauled up empty nets; of beer-emboldened captains settling feuds with punches; of pistol-toting fish-packers hitting the water with a million in cash to pay the seiners and gillnetters onsite for their catches; and of fortunes made and lost in an afternoon. Today such stories seem like tall fish tales. “I’ve been doing this for 19 years,” says Watson, a youthful and fit-looking 63-year-old, as his deckhand Bob Wilson, also in his 60s, ambles down the dock toward Diligence. “I guess it’s still a decent fishery.”

Though the colourful boats with equally colourful names tied up at the docks make for a nice photograph, this is, sadly, where they now spend most of their time: at the wharfs, with idle fishermen hanging around fixing nets, drums and herring skiffs and speculating about lowball prices and the precarious state of the fishery. In 2003 fishermen netted roughly 30,500 tonnes of herring off the West Coast; this year they’ll catch 15,000 tonnes – if they’re lucky. Individual herring are getting smaller in size and, hence, less valuable. At the same time, the fishery has been crippled by unforeseen economic and cultural forces. When the Japanese juggernaut economy faltered in the late 1990s, wholesale prices for salted herring roe plummeted. New generations of Japanese are also losing their appetite for the strange salty delicacy that’s perhaps already a fading vestige of traditional Japanese culture. To add to the fishery’s woes, marine conservationists and even fishermen themselves question the prudence of harvesting a cornerstone species solely for its eggs, when that species is consumed directly or indirectly by pretty much everything in the ocean.

In the words of Bob Secord, a blunt-spoken Lower Mainlander who’s been fishing for herring in the Strait of Georgia for more than 35 years, “I’ve done the herring fishery all my life and it’s kind of addictive, but it feels like we’re looking for the last spotted owl.”

The job is addictive for a good reason: money. For nearly a century, herring have been a bedrock commercial fishery in B.C., with annual landed values of as much as $50 million and wholesale values topping $180 million. We continue to meet more than 50 per cent of Japan’s herring roe demand, and our processing companies run the gamut from the mammoth, such as Jimmy Pattison’s Vancouver-based Canadian Fishing Co. (Canfisco), which controls roughly 30 per cent of the B.C. market (and which will process roughly 5,000 tonnes of herring roe this season), to the minor, such as Delta’s Lions Gate Fisheries Ltd., to which Peter Watson contracts his fish-packing services.

Peter Watson

It’s a long journey for roe, getting from the bellies of herring in B.C.’s cold waters to the bustling fish markets of Japan. Once boats unload their holds at Lower Mainland plants, workers separate males from the females, which are frozen for preservation. When the fish are thawed, processors pop the roe by hand: the higher the roe content, the more valuable the fish. Carcasses, both male and female, are rendered into low-value fish meal and oil, sold for animal and fish-farm feed. The roe itself is graded by size, colour, shape and texture, soaked in brine, packed in pails, then shipped to Asia for yet more processing. Eventually it ends up in fancy, decorative packets on the shelves of Japanese food stores. Last year wholesale prices in B.C. for herring roe were in the $5- to-$6-per-kilogram range.

As for the final product, kazunoko, it is for most North American palates a challenging proposition. Dull yellow in colour with the slippery appearance of a banana slug, kazunoko is bland and tasteless, other than a defining saltiness. Taste is secondary; the Japanese enjoy it more for the texture and the peculiar crunching sound it makes when eaten. Even Rob Morley, Canfisco’s vice-president of human resources and corporate development, admits it’s a culinary curiosity he wouldn’t go out of his way to consume. “Put it this way,” says Morley, “if the Japanese didn’t have a taste for it, I don’t think we’d have a market for herring roe.”

Two days after I meet Peter Watson at the Comox docks, the herring spawn is on. From 1,500 metres up in the air, the water looks like the Caribbean. Byron Koke, a Comox-based manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (commonly referred to as the DFO), is riding shotgun in a four-seat Cessna float plane soaring high above the coves, bays and sweeping crescent beaches of Vancouver Island’s eastern shoreline. Like some sort of airborne urologist, he’s looking for signs of herring sperm. “There’s some good spawn down there,” he says, his voice crackling through the headset above the dull roar of the engine.

Far below, plumes of turquoise water extend for nearly a kilometre along a cobble beach near the Little Qualicum River Estuary. Where the sea is clear, herring school in dark, swirling boils. Such brilliant displays herald the arrival of mature herring, which swim in from the open Pacific to our beaches and bays to spawn and procreate. In shallow water close to shore, ripe female herring perform what Koke calls a “curious dance,” depositing their eggs on the fronds of kelp and eelgrass. At the same time, male herring release their sperm, or milt, en masse, transforming the colour of the water in a matter of hours, as though a giant bucket of milky green paint had been dumped into the sea.

A cornucopia of winged and finned creatures are here near the Little Qualicum to feast on this rich and oily fish, often called the “ice cream” of the ocean. Rafts of gulls, cormorants and other seabirds fill their beaks with fish eggs. California and Steller’s sea lions – their stout, blubbery bodies glistening in the sunshine – gorge on adult herring. Harbour seals dart among them, vying for their share, along with spring salmon, which count on herring for an estimated 75 per cent of their diet. Even a pod of killer whales is spotted grazing the Strait of Georgia, within striking distance of the other lesser but tasty marine mammals gathered for the banquet.

“This is really early for a herring spawn and it’s hard to know why,” Koke says ponderously, as if to say, “If fish could only explain their behaviour, they’d be so much easier to manage.”

While Koke surveys the strait for herring spawn, Peter Watson is steaming south to French Creek – along with dozens of other boats in the fleet – to get into position for the first opening. All ears are tuned to the short-wave radio for the daily herring report from the DFO. Overhead, a bank of menacing, steel-grey clouds scud in from the west, portending stormy weather.

The commercial herring harvest has century-old roots – roots that predate high-tech aerial surveys and daily radio reports. Beginning in the late 1800s and up until the 1960s, government officials oversaw what in hindsight could be viewed as the wholesale slaughter of this species, with herring caught by the hundreds of thousands of tonnes each year, only to be rendered into fish meal and oil. By the mid-’60s, this extravagant fishery led to collapse: catches went from a staggering 259,000 tonnes in 1963 to a paltry 195 tonnes in 1969 – two years after the feds closed the fishery – raising fears the species would be extirpated from B.C.’s coast. The herring, fortunately, proved to be as perseverant as Sisyphus. Enterprising fishermen and wholesalers spotted an opportunity to sell herring roe for kazunoko in Japan after fish stocks from the then-Soviet Union and Japan had also been dangerously depleted. In 1972 the DFO determined that West Coast herring had rebounded enough to sustain a more tightly controlled fishery without causing the stocks to crash again.

Although the nascent roe herring fishery was a great improvement, in terms of fleet control and stock assessment, it was by most accounts like the Wild West on water – with enough high-seas drama, fisticuffs and legendary fortunes made and lost to fill a season’s worth of reality TV. The potent combination of fierce competition to net as much of the overall quota as possible and a brief fishing window, sometimes lasting as little as an hour or two, meant the best or luckiest could get rich while others went home skunked, disappointed and bitter. Fishermen had to be in the right place at the right time to encounter the massive schools of adult herring swimming in from the open ocean at the peak of fecundity, when the females were literally bursting with eggs.

Herring roe

To help federal fisheries staff keep a lid on this pressure cooker, every government agent with a sidearm took to the water, among them RCMP and conservation officers. In 1998 – realizing that this system was too frenetic, dangerous and difficult to control – the DFO decided to switch to an individual quota system. That meant each gillnet and seine licence, of which there are currently 1,268 and 252 respectively, was given a quota, and once the quota was caught, that licence-holder’s herring fishery was over. The management shift brought a large measure of sanity to an insane fishery, but it also eliminated opportunities for that motherlode million-dollar set. Gone were the days of energy and rollicking excitement, when there was a premium on a boat captain’s skill and cunning.

Talk to veteran fishermen and they’ll wax about the old days like a beer-league hockey player reminiscing about his junior season. There used to be heady times of potentially big money, recalls Steve Nelson, a retired fisherman whose grandfather was there for the pioneering days of the roe herring fishery in the ’50s with the family-run company, Nelson Brothers Fisheries Ltd. “In 1986 one guy made $1 million in a single set out in Toquart Bay,” Nelson says about the legendary fishing that occurred east of Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. “It was very intense. It could be very, very dangerous but it was super exciting. I definitely miss the money. I don’t think you’ll ever see another fishery like this again. I don’t know if it’s overfishing in the spawning grounds, ocean temperatures or a drop in prices. [It’s] probably a combination of all of them.”

Nelson commercial-fished for 39 of his 54 years, but two years ago he hung up his rain slicker, and today he spends a lot of time on the golf course. He speaks in the past tense about the herring fishery because, most would agree, the glory days are gone. “There’s nothing as limitless as greed, and that’s what this fishery was based on,” the retiree says with self-effacing candour. “From any ideological or environmental perspective, it’s always been thought of by many as an immoral fishery.” Strong words to describe an industry that has swelled the bank accounts of more than one fisherman, not to mention companies such as Pattison’s Canfisco.

The expected storm doesn’t manifest into much more than a few hours of moderate winds, but it’s enough to disperse the spawn down at French Creek. The catches there are pitiful so far – the fish too small and scarce to make it worth dropping a net. “I don’t know why they’re even bothering,” Peter Watson says, shaking his head as he observes a few skiffs out in Parksville Bay pulling empty nets. Watson doesn’t pack a single fish in French Creek and is soon determinedly following a fleet of gillnet boats, also working for Lions Gate, back up toward Point Holmes near Canadian Forces Base Comox where a heavy spawn is apparently underway.

It wasn’t that long ago that some environmentalists highlighted the herring fishery as a lone bright spot in the much-maligned commercial fishing sector. In a widely publicized 2002 report, Scott Wallace, then a marine biologist working for the Sierra Club, gave the Strait of Georgia fishery top marks for sustainability. The collaborative management approach, which brought industry, environmentalists and the DFO to the same table, was touted as an example of how a fishery should be managed. In addition, the stock assessment model, which in 1983 set annual catch quotas at 20 per cent of the estimated biomass, was viewed as a reasonable, hopefully sustainable target. “There was so much bad news around commercial fishing, and we wanted to find something positive,” says Wallace, who now works for the David Suzuki Foundation as a fisheries analyst. “The Strait of Georgia roe herring fishery emerged as a bit of a bright light.”

Jake Schweigert heads up the DFO’s herring-dynamics program, gathering and analyzing data from an office at the Pacific Biological Station overlooking Nanaimo’s Departure Bay. For herring-management purposes, the federal government divides B.C.’s coast into five areas: Queen Charlotte Islands, Prince Rupert, Central Coast, Strait of Georgia and the west coast of Vancouver Island. This year only Prince Rupert and the Strait of Georgia, often referred to as the Gulf, were deemed by the DFO to have enough returning herring to warrant a commercial opening.

“I think it’s still a viable fishery,” says Schweigert, “but the big question will be the impact of global warming and climate change. Herring don’t do well in warm water.” Schweigert notes that there are some disturbing signs on the horizon, such as the fact that spawning-age adults are shrinking: in 1981 a three-year-old herring weighed 86 grams, on average; last year that figure had dropped to 75 grams – a graphic indication that West Coast herring are losing their genetic robustness. In addition, ocean temperatures on the Pacific coast have been heating up at a rate of 0.13 C per decade since records were first kept in 1880, one of the changing conditions inhibiting the growth of the critical microscopic organisms (such as euphasiids and copeopods) that herring eat.

Just seven years after the Sierra Club published its favourable review of the herring fishery, Wallace is singing a slightly different tune. He says data gathered three years ago show abysmal juvenile recruitment in the Gulf (recruitment refers to the number of young herring that survive to become potential spawners), reason enough to substantially reduce the quotas for the 2008 herring fishery in the Strait of Georgia. “All the forecasts suggested this would be one of the worst years on record,” Wallace says, “and, in hindsight, even a lot of fishermen said the Gulf shouldn’t have been opened this year.”

The real problem with herring, continues Wallace, “is that they’re eaten by just about everything and there’s so much variability in their survival. Quotas are assigned based on stock forecasts, and we need a large amount of humility when we’re talking about fish. A lot of our knowledge is still so rudimentary.”

Not long after he arrives in Point Holmes in early March, the picture brightens for Peter Watson and the small gillnet fleet with which he’s working. In a single back-breaking night of work, he packs his 40-tonne quota of herring and by late the next day is already off-loading at Lions Gate’s plant on the Fraser River in Delta. Afterwards he sets sail for northern B.C. in anticipation of the smaller Prince Rupert opening.

In the meantime, other fishermen are still struggling to net their quotas. On a brilliant morning, the sun rises over the Strait of Georgia, flooding into Hornby Island’s Tribune Bay, where some 25 fish boats bob at anchor. Noisy gulls circle above the rocky conglomerate cliffs of Helliwell Bluffs and curious harbour seals poke their whiskered faces from the surface of the bay. Other than the energy and vitality of nature, there is an overwhelming sense of idleness. Ninety per cent of the roe herring fishery involves waiting around, and that’s mostly what’s happening this morning in Tribune. A few fishermen are out in their skiffs hauling and shaking nets. Among them is Ladner resident Dave Kadyschuk and his crew, all of them covered head to toe in fish scales, making them glint in the morning sun like strange bipedal amphibians.

“We’ve got 200 tonnes to catch and we’re at about 70 tonnes so far,” Kadyschuk says, as they shake a sparsely loaded net of herring into the holds of their skiff. “It’s done here. This is the shits. There’s usually a fish in every mesh opening.” Like Peter Watson, with a fisherman’s perpetual optimism, Kadyschuk says he’ll follow the fishery up to Prince Rupert – though he’ll be one man short: a twentysomething deckhand who claims he’s “going back to the rigs” to try his luck in the oil patch.

He’s not the only one with doubts. When I catch up with Bob Secord by cellphone on the bridge of his boat Home Run, a few kilometres out of Nanaimo (pursuing his so-called “spotted owls” of the sea), he also sounds like he’s ready to chart a final course back to his home port on the Fraser. But he won’t, because fishing is what he does. His salty stubbornness fails to conceal a foul mood as he unleashes a diatribe into the phone. The 2008 gillnet fishery has so far been a bust for Secord. He rails against the DFO for green-lighting the herring harvest when he says the science suggested otherwise, against his fellow fishermen for using smaller and smaller net sizes to catch smaller and ultimately less valuable fish, against the sagging prices for herring roe, against the futility of a fishery he feels is on the brink. Not even sea lions, which feast on tonnes of herring every year, escape Secord’s wrath.

He is admittedly frustrated about playing a part in the demise of a fish stock, and yet he is compelled to try to make a living from herring because he has capital locked up in boats, skiffs and nets, not to mention the fact that he is sitting on 14 leased fishing licences for which he paid $4,000 each. “It’s disgraceful what’s happening this year. There was never enough fish in the Gulf to have a fishery,” says Secord. “I’ve seen the stock just disappear.” He claims that he would have happily sat this herring season out if the DFO had closed it for stock-management purposes. That said, he’s out on the water chasing schools of herring and probably wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s still a decent living to be made. Last year, after a few weeks on the water, he says he grossed $40,000 and, after fuel bills and crew wages were paid, netted around $20,000 at a price of roughly $800 per tonne. He’s hoping to pocket $15,000 this season.

Down at Lions Gate Fisheries, the mood is also a tad funereal around the topic of herring. “What fishery?” asks Jack Waterfield, company president, when asked about this year’s roe harvest. “The fish just aren’t there.” Lions Gate isn’t a major player in the roe herring trade, as it accounts for less than eight per cent of the B.C. market. However, the fishery has been a steady-performing, labour-intensive aspect of Waterfield’s fish processing business, one that helps keep his crews busy in the early spring. Prices have dropped considerably since the glory days of the late 1970s and ’80s. According to statistics compiled by the State of Alaska, in 1996 the price for kazunoko at Japanese wholesale markets was around 4,663 Yen per kilogram; by 2004, average wholesale prices had fallen 50 per cent and were sitting at around 2,343 Yen (or $23) per kilogram. Given this year’s performance, Waterfield fears the once bountiful Gulf could be a no-go next season. Rob Morley, at Canfisco, also concedes that, while it’s still an important part of his business, the fishery’s future is uncertain. “Roe herring used to be a much more significant part of our business,” he notes. “I’d say our prices have dropped 70 per cent over the last 20 years.”

And so the roe herring industry finds itself in a double-whammy position: declining stocks, declining prices. Intuitively, reduced supply should lead to inflated prices – but instead the opposite is true, as plummeting demand for this traditional delicacy deflates prices. And in a self-perpetuating slide, given that kazunoko’s prestige is closely tied to its high price, the more the price drops, the less cachet the product has among wealthy Japanese. Consequently, gillnet and seine herring licences – many of them now held by the big fish companies such as Canfisco – hang around the necks of the owners like lead weights; licences that once fetched around $150,000 and $500,000 now go for less than 50 per cent of those values. Fishermen such as Secord, Watson and Kadyschuk walk a tenuous environmental and ethical line every time they drop a herring net in the water.

Despite widespread concerns, however, the DFO maintains a reduced roe herring fishery is a viable and sustainable part of coastal B.C.’s economy. To its credit, the government agency has been a reasonable steward of the resource for the past 35 years, during which time the stocks have risen and fallen, peaked, then fallen again. The DFO estimates that total biomass on the coast dropped by 13 per cent between 2006 and 2007. Given the tumultuous history of the fishery, herring can seem as resilient as a mountain of granite. Yet managing a fish resource is a delicate business, laden with uncertainty and unknowns. What is the impact on herring of changing ocean conditions, natural predators and large-scale commercial harvesting? Is it foolhardy to fish so far down the food chain when we don’t entirely comprehend the importance of herring to the chinook, lingcod, halibut and myriad other species that depend upon them? These are the perennial questions.

On Canada’s east coast, fishermen and government bureaucrats managed the unthinkable. Driven by that lowest common denominator of greed that too often trumps conservative stewardship of a precious natural resource such as fish, they drove cod to the brink of extinction. There’s a sinking feeling that here on the left coast we might one day do exactly that with herring – the foundation fish of the West Coast.

By mid-March Peter Watson has moor-ed Diligence at the Prince Rupert government dock, awaiting another opening. “It’s looking pretty good up here right now. The females are already at around 10 per cent roe,” Watson says cheerfully, his voice ebbing and flowing over a weak
cellphone connection.

The late afternoon sun gives the rolling swells of Hecate Strait, between Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands, a glittering golden sheen. For fishermen who continue to pursue the increasingly elusive herring for an increasingly fickle marketplace, stubborn optimism may prove their best friend.