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The only commercial herring roe fishery on Canada’s West Coast began earlier this month in the Strait of Georgia, as seine and gill net fleets set out to scoop up almost 20,000 tons of the spawning fish.Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild

The only commercial herring-roe fishery on Canada’s West Coast began last week in the Strait of Georgia, as seine and gill net fleets set out to scoop up 20,000 tons of spawning fish.

Four of the five main stocks of Pacific herring have been closed to commercial fishery because of diminished numbers, and conservationists are warning that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is gambling dangerously with the one remaining healthy stock.

“It is sort of the definition of insanity,” Ian McAllister, executive director of Pacific Wild, said in a phone interview as he sailed amid a fleet of hundreds of boats in Lambert Channel, between the islands of Denman and Hornby.

“We don’t see what is happening here as any different than what happened in all the other areas that have been closed. They are the same approach, same methodology and, for some strange reason, they think that this area is different.”

Jonathan Wilkinson, federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, who has acknowledged gaps in his department’s ability to manage salmon stocks on the West Coast, said he is confident the herring quotas are set at sustainable levels.

“We made that determination based on science," he told reporters Friday in Victoria. “The abundance of herring is such that we are, on the basis of science and evidence, convinced that there is sufficient herring to have a commercial fishery.”

He said he will not “selectively intervene” in the fishery "simply because that’s what some folks would like us to do.”

Mr. Wilkinson was in Victoria with B.C. Premier John Horgan to announce joint funding for salmon conservation programs. Chinook salmon in B.C.'s southern waters, where they are critical to the survival of the endangered southern resident killer whales, are in crisis. Ottawa and B.C. together have pledged almost $150-million for habitat restoration and other conservation measures for what they describe as an iconic species.

Mr. McAllister said that money won’t have any immediate impact on the declining chinook returns. Leaving 20,000 tons of herring in the water this year for the chinook to eat, he said, would make a difference.

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Today, DFO data show that herring spawning in the Strait of Georgia is at a historic high – based on tracking that began in 1950.Ian McAllister/Pacific Wild

Pacific herring were once abundant off the B.C. coast, but overharvesting over decades has dramatically altered the population. The first commercial harvest in B.C. began in 1876. By the 1960s, all five stocks were closed to fishing.

Today, DFO data show that herring spawning in the Strait of Georgia is at a historic high – based on tracking that began in 1950.

Jaclyn Cleary, the head of DFO’s stock-assessment program for Pacific herring, said new computer modelling is helping track the numbers, and the quota for herring in the Strait of Georgia is low enough that it provides a healthy margin for any forecasting errors.

Herring numbers vary tremendously from year to year, and scientists are not sure what combination of environmental conditions, predation and fisheries influences those numbers.

“The fishery is being managed in alignment with the best available science information for the Strait of Georgia," she said. “We have really clear understanding of what is removed and we have survey programs under way right now.”

However, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, in a report earlier this year, noted that DFO’s estimates for Pacific herring in the Strait of Georgia for 2019 are not assured. While the monitoring data show that spawning biomass is at a historic high, the report says, it warns of “large uncertainty in both spawning biomass and natural mortality estimates.”

Greg Taylor, a conservationist with Fish First Consulting, said DFO has done a much better job of managing herring compared with its poor management of Pacific salmon.

“In areas where there are identified issues, the fisheries are closed,” he noted. “If they managed salmon using the precautionary principles that they use for herring, our salmon would be in much better shape.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that seine and gill net fleets set out to scoop up 20 tons of spawning fish. In fact, it is 20,000 tons.

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